The gangly waiter approached the long group table with jerky self-consciousness, an uneasy mix of brash and awkward. "You want anything else here?" Phillip Glaspie II demanded in a loud voice. The table conversation slammed to a halt. For a waiter in one of the East Bay's upper-tier eateries, it would have been an uncomfortable breach of etiquette. But at Oakland's B Restaurant on this particular evening, Glaspie's blunt question was no small act of personal triumph.
The three-course dinner was part of the Guest Chef program, the first of what organizers hope will become a regular series of one-night feasts pairing some of the East Bay's best chefs with staffs culled from students at the Bread Project. The nonprofit teaches baking, cooking, and job-search skills to low-income and otherwise disadvantaged Bay Area residents some of whom have overcome drug and alcohol addictions and tries to help them land jobs.
Glaspie is one of fourteen students in Class 36, scheduled to graduate from the nine-week Bread Project course taught at the Berkeley Adult School. The nonprofit offers classes through the Oakland Adult School, too. A couple of current Class 36 students have already found jobs one at a McDonald's, another at the Safeway baking plant in Richmond. But the rationale behind Guest Chef nights is to give students a taste of work in the rarefied world of restaurants with twenty-dollar-and-up entrées.
While many graduates have scored entry-level positions at higher-profile bakeries such as Bakesale Betty and Market Hall and one even landed an unpaid apprenticeship at Chez Panisse placements in big-name restaurants have been rare. But who knows, maybe some student working the dinner series will catch the eye of a top-notch chef, mused Bread Project cofounder Lucie Buchbinder shortly before her accidental death on June 19 (see box). "That's a hope," she added. "They know they all have to start at the bottom."
At B, Glaspie was one of ten staffers getting a feel for things a couple of rungs up from the bottom. Among them were nine Class 36 students plus Ruben Perez, an ex-student who runs the Bread Project's cafe at Berkeley Adult School. He and four others worked the floor while the rest helped B chef Saman Javid in the kitchen, knocking out a stellar meal that included roasted wild halibut with a stew of Dungeness crab, corn, and basil.
Javid said he had a blast volunteering. "I was kind of standing back," the chef noted. B line cook Teague Moriarty cooked the halibut, Javid admitted, but the students blazed through everything else, prepping, making sauces, and plating up all three courses for a sold-out crowd of more than eighty guests. "There were two girls that were really rock stars," he said.
Would he ever consider hiring one of them? A split-second's hesitation: "It's a small kitchen here, and I do look for some kind of experience," Javid said. "But yeah, maybe starting some individuals as prep cooks."
One of those rock stars is Tracy Pitts of Richmond. The 38-year-old grandmother seemed just a girl herself. She reflected on her big-time kitchen experience a few days after her B gig while on break from the Bread Project's kitchen classroom at Berkeley Adult. Working with Javid only sharpened Pitts' desire to become a chef. "If I could work my way up and get experience that way, like maybe at a hotel, that would be good," she said. "If not, then I think I'll have to enter a culinary program and do it that way."
It'll be uphill all the way, as Pitts and her classmates find themselves near the bottom of a job pool already overstocked with twentysomethings waving pricey culinary degrees. "Plus, I think sometimes there's a little bit of a stigma," said Bread Project instructor Eleanor Triboletti. She's chef at Nizza la Bella, a French bistro in Albany, and teaches Bread Project students two days a week.
B Restaurant co-owner Misty Rasche may not be hiring Class 36 students anytime soon, but something happened at the Guest Chef dinner that stuck with her. "At the end, they all teamed up together and made sure the place would be just as it was when they walked in the door," she said, giving a little laugh of amazement. "Two of the women even jumped in to help out in the dish pit. I was surprised, because that's a hot, sweaty place to be."
Sweaty, but maybe far more bearable than a life of few options.
'A Huge Legacy'
On June 19, Bread Project cofounder Lucie Buchbinder of Oakland was struck and killed by an Amtrak train at the crossing in Jack London Square. Buchbinder was 83 and a native of Austria who fled the Nazis to settle in Sacramento. The Oakland Tribune reported that Buchbinder worked as a public-housing specialist for HUD; in retirement she focused on philanthropy, launching the Bread Project with Susan Phillips in 2000. "She did not want to see people in poverty," said Adrienne White, a Bread Project graduate and owner of Oakland's A Beautiful Swan Custom Catering. "She leaves such a huge legacy behind." September's Guest Chef dinner is expected to include a tribute to Buchbinder.