Meet the people partnering students with the city’s culinary industry. – Chicago Sun-Times

When children from underserved communities decide they want to break out of their current circumstances, what can they do to make their dreams come true?

What if one of them has aspirations to become a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant?

The Hospitality Scholars Foundation (HSF) aims to answer those questions, and more.

The foundation is the brainchild of Nicola Copeland, a trained chef with 13 years of experience, and activist-educator Dr. Brian J. Hill.

The foundation develops relationships with the culinary community via mentorship and employment opportunities while guiding CPS students from 19 schools through scholarship management and career readiness.

Copeland and Hill helm a team consisting of community members and educators who have taught and certified more than 5,000 CPS and trade school students since 2005, while donating more than $160,000 to provide professional licensure.

Copeland believes the foundation helps chefs of color break through the culinary industry’s glass ceiling.

“African Americans have always been the cooks,” said Copeland, HSF’s executive director. “I would say in the last 30 years where you do not see as many African Americans.

“The emphasis slowly became ‘Go get your education in culinary so you have basic foundations,’ and I think a lot of that eliminated persons of color; it specifically eliminated them from executive chef positions and management — leadership positions in hospitality. With that, a gradual shift from apprentice learning to more formalized learning.”

Nicola Copeland, Hospitality Scholars Foundation’s executive director.
Tori Soper/Provided Photo

Chef Ken Polk of Batter & Berries, a Lincoln Park eatery where some HSF students find work, says the program is beneficial for every stakeholder involved — especially for students who can’t gain on-site work experience due to the pandemic.

“It’s a win-win for all parties involved; my main interest in making sure that students who look like me — and the areas where we’re from — can access opportunities that we create that they may not have any other way,” said Polk. “For instance, making an omelet. It sounds really simple, right? I’m in a professional kitchen, and I can’t tell you how many eggs don’t make it. Now that’s someone who’s practicing that at home.”

Polk said the restaurant industry really stepped up amid the pandemic as millions of restaurant employees were laid off, shedding light on why careers in the culinary industry are more essential than ever. (Only a few places across the country could keep folks employed with carryout programs.)

“Every other industry is heavily recruited; there’s lots of money put into [Information Technology], but as you saw during the shutdown, what was still open? Restaurants,” said Polk. “What do people try to get every day? Something to eat. Where do we find these people? We have to create that labor pool, and part of creating that labor pool is the work the foundation is doing.”

HSF’s answer to the “shift,” Copeland said, is educational programming, such as Millie’s Camp, a summer camp hosted by Loyola University’s Recreational and Ecology Center where 30 students learned last year the ins and outs of farming and seasonal cooking.

Also, students have the opportunity to compete for scholarships via HSF’s “Legacy Week Celebration,” an annual culinary competition in honor of Black History Month. Students are awarded scholarships from schools such as the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.

Due to pandemic-related uncertainty, HSF had to scale back on its programming this year.

“We were able to award scholarships based on the first leg of their competition that happened in February, so that was so something that we were able to do” said Copeland, a Lincoln, Nebraska, native.

HSF alumnus Malik Waddy recently graduated from Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus. Waddy, who’s currently a chef at The Woodlawn, a Chatham eatery and event space, says the foundation gave him the skills and training to boost his culinary career.

“[HSF] teaches us about knife cuts, safety and sanitation, and how to write a recipe,” said Waddy, who also worked at Soulé Chicago, a West Town-based boutique restaurant. “But during the summertime, it’s all about your resume, your cover letter, your elevator speech.”

Hospitality Scholars Foundation (HSF) alumnus Malik Waddy.
Nicola Copeland/Provided Photo

Copeland echoes Polk’s sentiments when it comes to supporting students who may not come from the culinary industry’s traditional employment pipelines.

“It is pretty magical,” said Copeland. “I think Brian [Hill] and I all have these shining examples of young people who may have had a passing interest in hospitality or food and that passing interest blossoms into something amazing. … Working with kids, they all become kind of your own children or your favorite cousins — and you root for them.”