Part of the Philabundance Community Kitchen winter 2016 graduating class

Not long ago, Tahib Ali’s kitchen skills amounted to being able to pour a bowl of cereal.

Seriously. When the instructors at Philabundance Community Kitchen went around the room and asked their incoming winter 2016 students what dish they already knew how to make, that’s what Ali answered — “Cap’n Crunch.”

Not anymore. Over the past 15 weeks, Ali has learned how to prepare everything from roast chicken to creme brulee. He’s good at it, too, and is looking forward to applying for jobs and starting his a new career behind the line. He also can’t wait to show off to his wife — that’s the reason he was excited about entering the PCK program in the first place.

“I figure this will help make up to her for my past mistakes,” he explained. “I have a lot of cooking to do.”

But his wife is going to have to wait a little while longer.

Though he graduated as valedictorian from his culinary training course on Friday, Ali is still an inmate. He’s got two and a half more months on the five-year term he’s serving at the federal minimum security prison camp in Fairton, NJ.

A dish cooked by PCK students — fish roulade with orange sauce Credit: Danya Henninger

Founded in 2000 as a branch of hunger relief nonprofit Philabundance, PCK is usually described as a vocational program that works with formerly incarcerated people. But sometimes students are still in the prison system. Sometimes they were never behind bars to begin with, just down on their luck with housing or laid off from their jobs with no where else to go. Either way, PCK is there to help them take the next step.

Though it’s ostensibly a culinary arts program — one that produces more than 350,000 meals each year, served at a trio of area shelters — students quickly discover it’s much more.

“Hell no, it wasn’t what I expected!” Ali said, remembering back to when the assistant prison camp warden encouraged him to apply.

“This curriculum, it teaches math, life skills, coaching… Yeah, you’re gonna learn how to cook, but you’re gonna learn how to be a better person first.”

Learning how to be a better person isn’t easy. Of the 18 men and women who entered the winter 2016 class, only six made it to graduation.

Showing up is half the battle. Ali woke at 5 a.m. each morning to get in a GPS-tracked van and drive 1.5 hours to the North Philly facility each day. Others closer by took SEPTA — and had to figure out workarounds during the strike.

Ali’s whole family came out for graduation

But the staff at PCK, as hard as they drive their students and hold them to schedule, are there to help.

Alumna Amanda Dobbs, who now runs a successful catering company called Virtuous Foods and has appeared on ABC’s The Chew, recalled a situation where Dean of Students Shonte Graham had gone above and beyond.

“I said, ‘Mr. Graham, I can’t make it to class on time because I have to take my daughter to school.’ And he said, ‘Bring your daughter here with you, and I’ll drop her off.’”

Graham contributes greatly to the program’s triumphs. Every current and former student who spoke at the Community Kitchen’s 65th graduation ceremony last week made sure to mention him. He gave himself the title “Life Coach” because he hated the term “case worker” — he’d come up through hard times himself and wanted to offer his students something different.

“You’re not a ‘case,’ you’re a person,” he said. “It’s a much better way to start a relationship.”

The other three PCK instructors get similar props from their pupils. Operations manager Desiree Neal (aka “Miss D”) is like a community mom, offering emotional support throughout the 14-week session. Program director Candace Matthews-Bass, who was PCK’s first-ever staff member, is the behind-the-scenes backbone, plus teaches the killer (but extremely useful) mathematics portion of the course.

And employment and retention specialist Jennifer Williams (“Miss J”) is key — she’s the one who helps students get actual jobs after graduating, and helps make sure they stay employed.

Williams actually tracks alumni for a full 24 months post-program, no easy task considering 80 to 100 graduate each year. (Her job may soon get tougher, in a good way: Philabundance is in the process of applying for grants to expand the PCK program exponentially and build a custom facility for it. That would allow for a doubling of class size, or more.)

Ali’s classmates congratulate him on being named valedictorian Credit: Danya Henninger

It’s great when former students, who usually range from age 25 to 50, actively stay in touch. Many check in to give updates on jobs that worked out or return for help finding new ones. But even when they don’t, Williams makes an effort to keep abreast. It’s good for the individuals, but also important to maintain the program’s reputation.

“If I place someone in a restaurant job and then they don’t show up for work, then we all look bad,” Williams said. “I might not be able to place another graduate there next time.”

Philabundance has cultivated relationships with several restaurateurs and outlets to whom they know they can turn when they have job-ready candidates. Among the locations where students served internships this year are the Bynum brothers’ places (South, Relish, Green Soul, Paris Bistro); Earth Bread + Brewery; Marty Grims’ Moshulu and White Dog Cafe; Vetri’s Alla Spina and Osteria; and the cafeterias at Einstein Healthcare Network and Hahnemann and Abington Hospitals.

So yeah, in addition to the job readiness and life skills and math, this program actually does a good job teaching cooking.

Building on all the chopping and dicing and braising and baking training drilled into them by chef instructor Hugo Campos, the students of the 65th graduating class prepared the food served to friends and family at their commencement ceremony. It was delicious, as good as any catered meal. The brisket was juicy, the shrimp dumplings were spicy, the cucumber salad was tangy and miniature tarts made for a flaky sweet finish.

Even Ali’s five-year-old daughter liked it. So did his wife, who stood to congratulate him on his valedictorian status.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said, tears in her eyes. Then she smiled. “And when you get home, I’m gonna EAT!”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation, including the membership program. She is a former food and...