A pipe outside burst on a chilly morning, just hours before a Valentine’s celebration was planned at Sally’s Café.
James Walker happened to have come in early for his evening shift at the café. He saw his colleagues doing what they could to prepare despite having no running water. He pitched in to help scoop ground turkey into meatballs.
Walker is training as he works at Sally’s Café, which is located at and serves clients and staff of a Mental Health Center of Denver location in Baker. Walker said his kitchen skills have improved. His reaction to Thursday’s setback — which in the end did not derail the special annual meal designed to show a little love to Sally’s regulars — was evidence of the resilience that the job-readiness program is also trying to foster.
When a problem comes up, “we work around it,” Walker said in the kitchen just off of a dining room decorated with red paper hearts.
The culinary program is part of 2Succeed, a Mental Health Center of Denver vocational rehabilitation program that also offers computer training and college readiness classes. The culinary stream is overseen by Drake Louie, who not only has worked at the kind of fancy restaurants that have ampersands in their names, but has also trained at Johnson & Wales.
At Sally’s, Louie supervises people who arrive with no skills and others who have worked in restaurant kitchens before. They all come from different cultures, and they are all coping with a range of mental health challenges.
“The one commonality is they want change,” Louie said. “They don’t want to live under the weight of (a) label. It definitely makes you think: ‘Why can’t more of society be like this?'”
“This place gives hope.”
The café was named for Sally Domenico, a longtime and beloved 2Succeed administrative employee who died in 2003, a year before Sally’s opened.
Education specialists and case managers work with 2Succeed students.
“Then they have us as bosses” in the kitchen, said Louie, referring to himself and Candice Vigil.
Vigil went from 2Succeed culinary student to being employed by the program as a vocational supervisor. A decade ago, one of her six children had been diagnosed with cancer and she had separated from an abusive husband. The stress was overwhelming.
“I tried to commit suicide in front of my children,” she said.
As she recovered, a therapist suggested 2Succeed. Vigil, who had worked in restaurants, was initially hesitant.
“We’ve both worked for chefs who yelled,” Vigil said. “It was never about community. That’s one bond that Drake and I have.”
Louie said the cliche is to an extent true: Kitchen staff “in the back, getting yelled at by a Gordon Ramsay-like chef.”
When things go wrong at Sally’s, Vigil and Louie talk their staff through how to do better next time. The goal at Sally’s Café is to prepare students for restaurant careers if they want them without subjecting them to Ramsay-ian rants. Sally’s graduates who have gone on to restaurant jobs sometimes return to Louie or Vigil for a quick consultation when they encounter problems at work.
Vigil said the skills honed at Sally’s are useful anywhere. Students are “showing up for work every day … learning how to communicate with my team.”
If restaurants serving the public could be more like his in-house café, Louie said, they’d have fewer problems with retention and better-trained staff.
Sally’s “runs much more smoothly because we can be empathetic,” he said.
One morning before breakfast was served, Vigil was approached by a student who wasn’t on the schedule. She said he told her, “I don’t need to get paid today. Can I just sweep the floor and have a sense of community? Because in the real world, when you have a mental illness, that’s hard to find.”
Leila LeeAnn Howard, a recent culinary program graduate, said Vigil “was understanding of sometimes my meds weren’t working or I was having a bad day.”
Howard found 2Succeed after the death of her toddler son, who had suffered from a muscular disorder.
“I was struggling to get up in the morning and get dressed,” said Howard, who also had been a victim of domestic violence.
The culinary program meant focusing on learning new skills and meeting obligations such as coming to work as scheduled.
“It kind of got me out of the depression,” she said.
She said addressing an illness such as depression should be as natural as going to the doctor when you have the flu.
“We notice what’s wrong with our bodies and our minds,” she said. “If something is wrong, we need to get help.”
Howard, who said she had never spent much time in the kitchen before, said she learned things about herself too while working at Sally’s.
“Washing dishes actually calmed me down. Just having the hot water on my hands was soothing.”
“Just seeing people eating and happy makes me happy,” she said. “It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you have accomplished something: Not seeing someone hungry.”
Howard said she did not plan to put her Sally’s Café experience to work in a restaurant. Instead, she was going back to her old job in a mortuary. But she said an emphasis on healthy cooking at Sally’s had changed her eating habits, and that she thought she would now be better able to care for her octogenarian grandmother, who would be coming to live with her.
Louie and Vigil emphasize cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients. Their trainee chefs came up with a heart-healthy menu for Thursday’s Valentine’s feast that included a sauce of tomatoes, onions and garlic to be served over the turkey meatballs and pasta; a salad of lettuce, olives, feta, roasted bell peppers and garbanzo beans; and a low-fat chocolate pudding sweetened with honey.
As he rolled meatballs alongside Walker on Thursday morning, Future Honesty said he’d worked for 15 years at a fast-casual restaurant where all he learned was to “lay the meat down and wait for the timer.”
“Here, you’re cutting the vegetables, sauteeing the vegetables, making the sauces.”
Honesty said he hoped to manage a restaurant after finished the Sally’s Café program.
Students such as Walker and Honesty earn minimum wage during their training in areas such as storing food, using knives and butchering. They can leave with certificates in food handling or food protection management. Through partnerships with restaurants and other businesses, the Mental Health Center of Denver also helps 2Succeed graduates find jobs.