When award-winning chef Carmen Rodriguez and his wife Penny returned to New Mexico in 2017 from a stint working out of state, they opened the MiSanta catering company. Finding themselves in need of assistance for a large special event in Pojoaque, a friend suggested they call in the students from a culinary training program run by Santa Fe's YouthWorks. Being longtime supporters of local nonprofits, they were excited to once again get involved in their community. The handful of students were working in a life-changing program, but it was Carmen and Penny's lives that would soon be changed.
The Rodriguezes were so impressed by the students that, by October of 2017, Carmen had become the "godfather" of YouthWorks' culinary program and Penny had embraced the role of special projects coordinator. Sitting down with YouthWorks Executive Director Melynn Schuyler, they worked together to outline a five-year plan to grow the program.
At that time, YouthWorks was preparing and delivering 1,400 meals a week to the lowest-income schools in the area for their lunch programs. With the advent of that five-year plan, a lot of hustle and no lack of able and willing students, by December 2018 the program was serving 1,400 meals a day to local schools, all while training at-risk youth for work in Santa Fe's hospitality industry.
"We get youth engaged in a positive way if they've been tripped up in the system," says Schuyler.
"Our goal is not to make great chefs, it is to make great people to support them," adds Rodriguez. "It's not about cooking, it's about job training. This is real-world, all hands-on work, not book work. I teach them to make the quality of food I made to win [the New Mexico Restaurant Association's] 2012 New Mexico Chef of the Year."
So, yeah, this isn't just any "school food." A peek at the month's meal plan for one local school includes coconut chicken curry with brown rice, peas, carrots and fruit; another day is beef pot roast with potatoes, carrots and fruit. Every meal includes a vegetarian counterpart, for these they include coconut curry lentils and hearty chickpea stew.
"Ninety-eight percent of the program's food is made from scratch and we get as much as we can locally," points out Schuyler. "We want kids we cook for to learn healthy eating habits and have exposure to a wide range of foods."
For students in the culinary program, it builds self-esteem and pride. Not only do they prep the food, they deliver it to the schools. "They get to see how happy their hard work makes the kids in the schools," says Penny Rodriguez.
In addition to creating meals for local schools, the YouthWorks culinary program has expanded to include a food truck and catering service. "Food is a great vehicle to get people's attention," says Rodriguez. "We're not just making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but interesting, creative, out-of-this-world food."
The YouthWorks food truck has become a standard at community events, from Spanish Market to festivals at El Rancho de las Golondrinas.
"I always ask, 'What food don't you have at the event?' And we develop menus from there," Rodriguez tells SFR. "We tailor our offerings to fit the needs of the event."
One event organizer zeroed in on Brussels sprouts as a missing ingredient, so the YouthWorks culinary team responded with charred brussels sprouts with riced cauliflower and stir-fried vegetables in buddha sauce.
"On the other hand, we're just as ready to offer hamburgers and hot dogs, if that's what folks want," Rodriguez notes with a laugh.
"We like to mix it up," adds sous chef Jackie Gibbs, herself a graduate of the YouthWorks culinary program.
About 1,200 youth benefit from YouthWorks' programs each year, and all proceeds from the culinary program's efforts are reinvested to support other job training and placement programs, as well as counseling and alternative education efforts.
"We never say 'no,' because if it's to the benefit of our community, we're going to do it," says Schuyler.
"It's a daunting task and maybe we're crazy, but we say, bring it. We're ready to throw down," adds Rodriguez.
It's this attitude that lends street cred to YouthWorks programs.
"We don't have to recruit," says Schuyler. "This is a close-knit community, so word of mouth spreads. Young people are telling other young people about YouthWorks. If we don't have a program or help that fits their needs, we'll figure it out and build it. We don't give up."
Currently working from a temporary kitchen, YouthWorks has plans to expand the program based on success stories such as Father Greg Boyle's Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and Seattle's FareStart.
"We have dreams not just of following these examples, but exceeding them," says Schuyler.
“We’re taking care of the ones who are forgotten—and that’s the kids. We want them to be heard, seen, and to have a future here in Santa Fe,” adds Rodriguez.