Chefs for Success class
Chefs for Success began in 2005 and has seen hundreds of graduates. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

Jeff Compton plans to open an urban taco restaurant. Chefs for Success, a culinary arts training program offered by the Salvation Army, is a first step toward achieving that goal.

A former cab driver, Compton was involved in an accident back in the spring that meant he could no longer hold a license to drive a cab. He was out of work and wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But he always had a love for cooking and, on a trip to Atlanta at one point, came across a taco restaurant that catered primarily to African-American diners.

“I thought, ‘That is the coolest thing,’” he says.

So, after losing his cab driving job, he decided to enroll in Chefs for Success, which now is teaching him not just some of the basics of cooking and working in a kitchen, but also skills like managing product and making the bottom line work.

Chefs for Success class
Jeff Compton, left, listens to an instruction from Jackson Hodges during a recent class at the Salvation Army. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

“I knew I had to figure it out on my own,” Compton says about finding a new line of work. “I knew I had to be superb before I go out there. I’m actually learning a lot.”

The program began in 2005 and has seen hundreds of students enroll, with a graduation rate upwards of 75%. The 160-hour course runs for 10 weeks, with three enrollments taking place every year.

The current class graduates Aug. 9, at which time the graduates will receive a chef’s coat, a knife set and certificate of completion that will help them find work in the culinary world.

The program is self-funded by an annual benefit dinner that takes place every March in which Chefs for Success partners with local chefs, who work with students, past and present, to prepare the banquet, adding further opportunities for experience, not just in food service, but working with successful culinary professionals.

In addition, every 18 months, Sullivan University chooses a graduate to receive a full scholarship to its Culinary Arts program.

One graduate of an early Chefs for Success class is Jackson Hodges, who is now the instructor. It’s his job to teach the students culinary basics in the relatively short 10 weeks. On one recent morning, Hodges is working with 12 students, teaching them how to make fresh mayonnaise.

One student asks him, “Can I add another egg?”

“No,” is Hodges’ stern reply. “When you make a mistake, you have to know what to do to fix it — not cheat.”

In other words, the classes are serious business, built to prepare.

Hodges says before he entered the Chefs for Success program, he had been homeless and a crack addict until, through the program, he became the very first graduate to be chosen for a scholarship from Sullivan University. Not long after he graduated from Sullivan, the Chefs for Success instructor job opened up, and the Salvation Army offered it to Hodges. He didn’t hesitate to accept.

“I said, ‘As much as (the program) has done for me, absolutely,’” he says.

Hodges’ main job now?

“Trying to get (students) prepared for the day they walk into any kitchen. The goal is to get them into the hospitality industry.”

Chefs for Success Paiman Ahmed
Paiman Ahmed preps ham steaks for cooking during a recent class. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

David Yarmuth, community relations director for the Salvation Army, points to the program’s benefits not just in helping people learn or improve a skill, but that it helps deliver trained workers into a culinary community that often wants for reliable help.

“We see it as a way to keep feeding that need in the city,” Yarmuth says, noting that most of the students they see either want to learn cooking or are simply expanding their knowledge to help obtain a culinary job.

“Adding these extra skills helps,” he says. “These are basic things maybe they didn’t pick up along the way.”

Chefs for Success graduation
Shari Saxton receives her chef’s coat from Red Kettle Café kitchen manager Richard Dowell at a recent Chefs for Success graduation ceremony. | Courtesy of the Salvation Army

“It’s self-improvement,” adds Johanna Wint, executive director of the Salvation Army in Louisville. “They believe, ‘I can accomplish something.’ This is one of the first things they can say they completed. It opens so many doors.”

Paiman Ahmed, another current student, is an example. Ahmed, who is Kurdish, came to Louisville three years ago with her husband, but she is now divorced and on her own.

She speaks very little English but currently works for Porkland BBQ. However, her first love is baking and making desserts. She’s adding to her skillset in Chefs for Success while also improving her opportunities.

She’s also enjoying the food in her new home. Asked what her favorite Southern-style food is, she smiles and says, “All is good, but Kentucky chicken.”

Meanwhile, her classmate Compton also continues to work on his kitchen education, eyes set on graduation Aug. 9. He also is working on a plan to raise capital to first start a pop-up taco stand to serve downtown and believes the Chefs for Success certification can help him get a startup loan. At some point, he may graduate to a food truck.

“My ultimate goal is to have a brick and mortar,” he says.

Compton says this because he knows from the Chefs for Success program’s history that after he graduates next month, anything is possible.

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Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies.Email Kevin at [email protected]