Photo Gallery | Farm-To-Table Culinary Apprenticeship success

BRATTLEBORO — Based on the success of last year's initial program, Strolling of the Heifers is offering the Farm-to-Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program again this summer.

The program, which will run from July 5 to Sept. 16, is free to participants, including veterans, who are seriously interested in a career in the culinary field and who meet certain qualifications: a history of low income; a history of unemployment or underemployment; a willingness to commit to the program's values, rules, and requirements; and a drug-free lifestyle. Prior to enrollment, candidates must be available for a personal interview. Up to 16 people will be accepted. Program sponsors this year are Sandy River Charitable Foundation, Thomas Thompson Trust, and the Brattleboro Retreat.


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For the first three weeks of the program, participants receive classroom instruction in food processing skills, commercial food basics, local food systems, and job-readiness skills, and gain practice through kitchen lab work. They are trained in the ServSafe Food Handler program and can earn ServSafe food handler certification. The program uses the culinary arts kitchen at the Windham Regional Career Center and will also use the newly installed educational kitchen at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.

For the remaining weeks, participants intern at local restaurants and institutional kitchens four days per week, seven hours per day. They are paid for this time, thanks to the Vermont Department of Labor's workforce development program. Participants return to the classroom the fifth day of the week for additional training and review of their internship experiences. Job coaches Vicki Friedman and Bobbie Groves offer support during both the classroom sessions and the internships. The goal is to place graduates of the program in permanent food-sector jobs.

Tristan Toleno is culinary instructor for the Farm To Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program for the Strolling of the Heifers.
Tristan Toleno is culinary instructor for the Farm To Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program for the Strolling of the Heifers. (Kristopher Radder — Reformer Staff)

"The Strolling of the Heifers Culinary Apprenticeship Program matches many of goals of the department," said Suzanne Wagner, regional manager of the Vermont Department of Labor. "The combination of hands-on and classroom training followed by internship and job placement with area businesses helps meet the needs of both the job seekers and businesses we strive to support. We have been working closely with Orly (Munzing) to support recruiting for the program and are excited to be one of the partners offering support to this summer's group of participants."

Orly Munzing, founder and executive director of Strolling of the Heifers, who serves as program coordinator, said in a phone interview that participants use this opportunity as a fresh start

"We tell them when they enter the door that whatever has happened in their past, this is a new beginning. We tell them they can do it, and we give them hope. We become a family.

"It's a serious commitment," she continued. "They sign a contract with us. They have to look the part. They have to be on time. I've purchased alarm clocks for people. We work on problem-solving skills with them. We teach nutrition and healthy life choices."

The idea for the apprenticeship program, Munzing said, grew from what she observed through the windows of the River Garden building on Main Street in Brattleboro after Strolling of the Heifers moved into it in 2013.

"I saw the unemployment," she said. "I saw the need day-to-day. 'What can we do,' I wondered, 'to help people become independent?'"

Kenneth Watkins is a line cook for Whetstone Station Restaurant and graduate of the Farm-To-Table Culinary Apprenticeship.
Kenneth Watkins is a line cook for Whetstone Station Restaurant and graduate of the Farm-To-Table Culinary Apprenticeship. (Kristopher Radder — Reformer Staff)

Because the Strolling is about connecting people with the food they eat and because local restaurants need trained employees, Munzing began to see an opportunity. To discuss her idea, she turned to Tristan Toleno, someone she had worked with on other projects. Toleno has extensive experience in food preparation and is the Apprentice Program's curriculum developer and lead instructor.

Toleno grew up in Marlboro. A 1989 alumnus of Brattleboro Union High School, he graduated in 1993 as a philosophy and religion major from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Although he anticipated a career as an academic, life had other plans.

"I fell in love with food," he said. "I had always been cooking with my mother at home, and in college in my housing situation, for three years I had to cook. I also worked for a year as a short-order cook."

After graduating in 1996 from New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Toleno moved to New York City, where he developed his culinary skills. When he returned to Brattleboro, he became managing partner and chef of the Riverview Café for 10 years. Currently, he is head chef at American Legion Post No. 5 in Brattleboro. In addition, he operates two catering businesses, Entera Artisanal Catering and Rigani Catered Wood-fired Pizza.

"Orly and I worked together for years on the Farm-to-Plate program," he said. "When she hatched this idea, she asked my advice. I have 20-plus years of experience in the food business, and I have mentoring experience. Kitchen culture is not inherently welcoming. This program is designed to help student-participants navigate the subtleties of entry into the workplace or communicating with supervisors and co-workers."

Toleno was elected in 2012 to the Vermont House of Representatives from Windham District 2-3 (Brattleboro).

"Let me put on my legislator's hat for a minute," he said. "Vermont has one of the highest completion rates for graduation from high school, and one of the worst completion rates for graduation from four-year college programs. Sixty percent of the adults in Vermont have no four-year college degree.

"Good work-force development is based on the concept that we get as many people as possible into college," he said, "and that while there, students build up threshold skills in a specific field: manufacturing or computers or the construction or service trades. If they thrive in their training situation, eventually they can get advanced training, continue to grow, earn money, and develop themselves professionally. This is the direction we need to move in. The Culinary Apprenticeship Program is a modest example."

The long-term plan for the Culinary Apprenticeship program is to have three rounds a year, each three months long, Munzing said, adding she hopes this model can be used in other business sectors.

With an eye to the building of work-force skills, Munzing takes considerable care in matching participants to their internship placements.

"As an educator for many years," she said, "I consider each participant's personality, needs, and interests. It's important to match participants with the right internship. We want to connect them with a placement that works for them."

Kenny Watkins, a 2015 graduate of the Apprenticeship Program, is sauté cook at the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery in Brattleboro.

"I've been there a year," he said in a telephone interview. "I've always had a passion for cooking. This was a chance to make a career out of it, and I'm on the right path to it. I'm also a person in recovery, and this is a stepping stone in my recovery. It's been wonderful. I'm so glad I participated."

Watkins brought a lot of culinary experience with him into the Apprenticeship Program.

"I took culinary arts in high school," he said. "I'm originally from Springfield, Mass. I held positions at Max's Tavern at the Basketball Hall of Fame. I was two years there. I've worked in privately owned restaurants and fast food. During my incarcerations, I worked in the kitchens. I have 13 years of cooking experience."

Watkins's 9-year-old daughter, Avery Bennett, also likes to cook.

"We watch cooking shows together," he said. "I believe she will follow in my footsteps. Her dream, as well as mine, is to have a restaurant. I'm very grateful to Orly Munzing and to Tristan Toleno. By participating in the program, I've gained a lot of contacts. I've met a lot of positive people, established people, in the community. It's opened a lot of doors for me to be successful."

For the new cohort coming in, Watkins has the following advice.

"Take advantage of the opportunity," he said. "Stick with it. Have an open mind. Take constructive criticism and positive advice when it's given. It will pay off in the long run."

An online application form is available at www.strollingoftheheifers.com: Look under the tab "Registration" for "Culinary Apprenticeships." The online form can be downloaded as a PDF, printed, filled out, and delivered to the River Garden, 157 Main Street, Brattleboro, or mailed to Strolling of the Heifers, 105 Partridge Road, East Dummerston, Vermont 05346. Printed applications are available at the River Garden. The program is open to all ages, ethnicities, genders, and races. Applications are due by June 14.

Nancy A. Olson is the former head of the English Department at Brattleboro Union High School. She can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com.