Culinary crash course aims to feed need for Maine restaurant workers

May 12, 2023

HospitalityMaine has teamed up with York County Community College to offer the New Cook Bootcamp.

Toby Nye began working in Portland kitchens as a Waynflete high school kid. He wanted some experience in the work world and needed to make money. Though his first job ever, at Flatbread Pizza, led to other kitchen jobs, he never took restaurant work seriously.

But something shifted this year when he started as a dishwasher at Tipo. Restaurant kitchens stopped looking like a job to him, said Nye, now 24, and began looking like a career. One day, he approached Tipo’s chef de cuisine with a question: Could he switch from dishwashing to cooking?

At about the same time, Tipo co-owner Paige Gould was invited by the nonprofit trade group HospitalityMaine to attend an informal job fair at York County Community College in Wells. A small group of students there had just completed the three-and-a-half day New Cook Bootcamp, a program begun by the school this spring – so far there have been four sessions – in conjunction with HospitalityMaine. The win-win idea behind the fast-paced crash course in cooking is to equip Mainers with entry-level training to begin a career in the professional kitchen, and to help the state’s beleaguered restaurants find enough staff fast, just as the busy summer season bears down. Waiting for culinary students to complete one- and two-year programs isn’t an option when a restaurant needs staff now.

Gould drove down for that particular boot camp’s final day. As it turned out, only one of the students needed a job, and he was moving to Massachusetts. As Gould headed back to Portland, she wondered how she could get something out of her trip. Maybe, she thought, Toby Nye would like to attend the next session.

On Thursday, Nye and eight other students completed the hands-on course, cooking an array of fish (salmon with caper sauce, baked haddock, mussels marnier), as well as crepes with chicken fricassee, and a tray of handsome grilled vegetables (the students had mastered nice, even grill marks). They “graduated” at noon, although that’s probably too grand a term for finishing the short program. Each got a certificate from the college, to applause from college administrators, as well as ServSafe certification, which testifies to their food sanitation training on the first day of the course.

Tipo, Nye said, is very fast-paced. Experienced cooks don’t have time to slow down and thoroughly explain things to the new kid. The boot camp allowed him to focus “without the element of urgency,” he said. “This is about getting a stronger sense of the foundation of cooking. I’ve had a great week.”

The course is taught by Joe Pirkola, a chef and longtime college and high school culinary teacher, who seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, able to teach the students – almost simultaneously – how to neatly slip a stuffed crepe from a china plate to a steam table pan and how to clean up a plate that had shattered on the floor (a broom! Don’t use your hands!), while reminding them to provide utensils for each of their dishes and to sprinkle chicken wings with sesame seeds. In the restaurant world, presentation matters.

That chicken, by the way, started out on Day 1 of the class as a raw whole chicken that the students learned to break down. Over the next few days, they used bits and pieces to make chicken stock, soup, sauteed chicken breast, veloute sauce, chicken fricassee and wings. In the world of restaurants, Pirkola explained, “That chicken is sold five times. Everything we’ve done would be a sellable product, and also a technique that I was trying to teach.”

Over the several-day course, students tackled – among other skills – blanching, searing, braising, knife cuts, the French mother sauces, egg cookery and useful tricks, like anchoring your cutting board with a wet kitchen towel so it won’t slip when you’ve got a sharp knife in your hand. The curriculum got its start in lists compiled by HospitalityMaine and local employers about what very basic skills they seek in new kitchen staff.

“No. 1, baked haddock,” Pirkola said about taking basic skills and basic dishes to heart. “There are probably not too many restaurants around here that don’t have a baked haddock, so we do haddock – a white fish – then seared salmon, so it’s a fatter fish. Steamed mussels, so it’s cleaning mussels, identifying which ones are alive and which ones are not, because if they go work anyplace, they are probably serving mussels in Maine.”

The class was a mix of students – male and female, 20-somethings and 50-somethings, restaurant staff (one shifting from front-of-the-house to back at Dockside Grill in Falmouth), retirees, a University of Southern Maine Ph.D. student in agritourism, a property manager with a catering sideline in oysters, and a young woman who happily works at a local farm but thinks one day she may want to sell her sourdough bread. The course is not only free; students actually get a $350 stipend for completing it. The program is supported by a grant from the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce.

HospitalityMaine not only hopes to continue the program at York County Community College, but also to replicate it throughout the state, according to Derek Fassett, director of Education & Workforce Development at the HospitalityMaine Education Foundation. He added that, ideally, students who attend boot camp, what he described as a pre-apprentice program, will go on to sign up for the nonprofit’s longer, more-intensive apprentice program.

When Gould first asked Nye whether he’d like to attend the crash course, he was excited, but he doesn’t own a car and had no way to get there. “All right, all right, let’s figure this out,” she told him. In the end, Nye’s girlfriend drove him to the first day of class, Tipo’s general manager drove him another day, and Gould herself ferried him for two days.

“I really wanted him to be able to do it, and he wasn’t going to be able to do it unless he got help,” she said. “I’m always happy to help someone who wants to move up.

“If your community college is offering to do some of the training for us, I’m not going to say no,” she added, with a laugh.