By Claire Salinas
As executive chef of Restaurant IPO and with a spot on Louisiana Cookin’s 2013 Chefs To Watch list, Chef Chris Wadsworth was headed to the top in the culinary world.
In 2013 he and his wife and business partner, Sommer Wadsworth, had already catered the Sundance Film Festival, appeared on a “Top Chef” episode and had their restaurant chosen as one of the top 100 Restaurants to Dine at for Foodies on OpenTable, but after visiting Café Reconcile in New Orleans – a nonprofit daytime diner serving food cooked by at-risk youth receiving job training – Chris came back with an idea that would change their entire trajectory.
“When he got on ‘Top Chef’ one of his shoots was at Café Reconcile,” Sommer said. “We thought, ‘Oh you’re going to do a photo shoot, no big deal.’ He came back in awe of what they do and how their program runs. He said, ‘I think we can do a great spin-off of what Café Reconcile does in New Orleans.’ I jumped on board and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Having the experience of conducting interviews for their restaurant and food truck opened the couple’s eyes to the large need for training in the restaurant industry.
“You have to put out all these Craigslist ads or ads in the newspaper and when you get people in they have their earphones in, their pants are sagging and they really don’t have the correct verbiage to pull off an interview,” Sommer said. “Chef and I kind of looked at each other after so many applicants and we were like, ‘Who’s really out there helping the next generation?’”
So they founded Triumph Kitchen in Baton Rouge, which aims to not only give students the skills to succeed in in the restaurant industry, but also in life.
“The ultimate goal is to give them the survival skills they need in the work industry. I don’t ever guarantee that I will turn my student into chefs. That doesn’t happen right away, it happens over a number of years. What we do is give them a leg up in the culinary world,” said Chris.
According to Sommer, Triumph Kitchen has a come-as-you-are attitude.
“They don’t have to come to Triumph with a diploma or GED, but we do require that they start taking classes to get their GED if they don’t already have it.”
Sommer recalled one young man Triumph Kitchen empowered with the skillset he needed to move forward in his difficult situation.
“He came to us from Iowa to attend Triumph and he just moved back to Iowa to take care of his mom. He’s now working at restaurant in Iowa and helping to pay medical bills for his mom.”
According to Chris, there are no guarantees that the students of Triumph will remain in the kitchen, but the skills they learn can be transferred to almost any industry.
“We certainly don’t guarantee or push any of our kids to stay in the kitchen. In the last class we had a girl wanted to be a fashion designer. She had to deal with time crunches and learn people skills in the program that she can use in that industry.”
Students have to apply to enter the program at Triumph Kitchen. Chris said the process through which he and Sommer narrow down the pool of applicants is subjective.
“We’re not like a state school or government run school, so Sommer and I call the shots. When we get into the application process what we are simply looking for, can we help this person, do they want to be helped and do they have a support system that’s going to continue to support them after we rebuild them.”
As a non-profit organization, the kitchen relies on donations to fund students’ tuition and keep operations running. The public has the opportunity to support the cause by making a donation or dining in for breakfast or lunch at Triumph Kitchen’s new expanded location on Government Street.
“We will be serving breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The money we make goes to keeping this place up and running. It costs $2,500 per student to put students through the program for 14 weeks. We provide materials, textbooks and feed them two meals a day.”
If students take nothing else away from their time at Triumph Kitchen, Chris wants them to remember, “There are no boundaries, the only limitations you have in the world are the ones you set on yourself. Anything that can hold you back is something that you can control.”
Running Triumph Kitchen can be exhausting, but the Wadsworth’s definitely feel like it’s worth it.
“I share a similar background with a lot of these kids. I was that 15 year old who dropped out of high school, got my GED and didn’t really care about going back to school at all. I just wanted to work.,” said Chris.
For Sommer, “It’s a no brainer. Both Chef and I do it for the students.”
The Wadsworths have formed a close bond with the students at Triumph Kitchen, and even consider them part of their family.
“We treat them as one of our kids,” Chris said. “We become that support system for them. At the end of the day we’re one big family. We don’t want to set them up with a job – we want to set them up with a career.”