Camillus House/Miami Dade College Culinary Training Program Perseveres

Student Ryan Walsh, foreground, works in the kitchen at Miami Dade College's Hospitality Institute.
Student Ryan Walsh, foreground, works in the kitchen at Miami Dade College's Hospitality Institute. Photo by Liliana Mora, Miami Dade College
In an effort to help homeless people in Miami escape life on the street and succeed for themselves, Camillus House and Miami Dade College formed a kitchen-cook training program at Camillus House.

The training program began in January 2018, and by June of that year three classes had completed their training. Some went on to work at Marlins Stadium, Marriott Biscayne Bay, Levy’s Restaurants, and Fiola in Coral Gables.

By last year, the program had graduated seven classes — about 90 graduates in all — with a job-placement rate of more than 70 percent.

Then came the pandemic.

Knowing full well that job placement would be more difficult, Hilda Fernandez, chief executive officer of Camillus House, thought it was important that the program continue.

“There's nothing that makes my day more than to see these students walking around the Camillus House campus with a look of pride on their face,” Fernandez explains. “Working in a kitchen requires a lot of discipline, which is great for these clients.”

Teaching through a pandemic required drastic changes in the way the program would function.

Miami Dade College's Hospitality Institute normally offered training five days a week during the seven-week program, with students spending mornings in the classroom and afternoons working hands-on in the kitchen.

COVID-19 changed the way the lessons are handled. Now, lessons are offered virtually four days a week with one day of hands-on culinary training at the Miami Culinary Institute at Miami-Dade's Wolfson Campus downtown.

Despite the changes, students are taught the culinary skills that will enable them to land jobs. “They learn to debone a chicken, make all the sauces, learn about the different cuts of beef and safe food handling which is very important,” Fernandez explains.

They also learn invaluable lessons that can take them beyond the culinary world.

"We also integrate life skills and employability skills into the training, as these are crucial to being successful in both life and finding future employment,” says Lauren Drosdowech, the Hospitality Institute's manager.

The program was a positive experience for recent graduate Ryan Walsh.

“Being hands-on at Miami Culinary Institute was the highlight of every week. The facility was top of the line, it was an amazing experience,” he says.

Because the restaurant industry is such a competitive market, it offers endless employment opportunities, but without training or a steady job history, it's hard for newcomers to get a chance to prove their worth. The Camillus program gives attendees a leg up in a competitive market.

“The certificate of completion and food-safety certification students receive from Miami Dade College puts them in a better position to gain employment," says Fernandez.

Taking it one stop further, graduates are offered the ability to apply their certificate toward an associate's degree at Miami Dade College. "We assist any student who wishes to continue their education with admission into the academic degree programs,” says Shelly Fano, chair of the college's hospitality-management degree program.

The graduation ceremony for 2020's fall class was held virtually in late October. Though there were no in-person hugs or high-fives, the Hospitality Institute instructors and staff beamed with pride throughout the ceremonies. Though futures are uncertain, there's a sense of accomplishment.

“This has been a great partnership with Miami Dade College — they have been amazing,” Fernandez says.
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Josie Gulliksen is a Miami native who's been covering Miami's arts and culture scene for more than two decades. She loves biking, spending time in nature, eating out, and attending all types of events. She dreams of one day writing a play and being on the stage.
Contact: Josie Gulliksen