|By Sally Ho, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 20, 2012--The most famous alum of a chef training program in Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood never finished his classes at the Chinese American Service League's program, but Ivan Yuen still credits the course for his career.
The head chef of the lavish Shanghai Terrace fusion restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel has hired nearly half of his 12-person staff from the program.
"CASL teaches the very basics, to let the student understand a different culture," Yuen said.
Of the 1,400 students who have gone through the league's Chef Training Program since 1985, nearly 70 percent found jobs within six months.
With trainees landing in the kitchens of restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools and food production outlets, program officials said the successful placement record stems from a network of about a dozen employers who continually use and trust the program, and alums, like Yuen, who believe in it.
The program was born from a need within the Chinese immigrant community in Chicago, said Ricky Lam, the nonprofit's employment and training department manager. The organization is one of many groups in the Chicago area supported by Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.
"A lot of new immigrants go to work in restaurants, as a cook, dishwasher or waiter," Lam said.
Those jobs often went to the men in the family despite the low wages, long hours, little advancement and lack of benefits.
But women had an even tougher time finding work. Not only was there a language barrier, they also typically had to take care of young children or elderly relatives.
So CASL developed a comprehensive program that catered to the Chinese immigrant experience.
"It's very hard to be a new immigrant with a language barrier to start their career in America," Lam said. "(The program) needed to be very accessible and convenient for the community."
Translators are available in the training classes, which focus on Western cooking techniques and the basics. A pre-program English language class is offered as an option. The learning concludes with an introduction to job hunting, from writing resumes to interviewing.
The center also has in-house day care centers for children and elderly adults, with meals included. Stipends for transportation are available too.
The 16-week program runs year-round with up to 18 students in the cramped second-floor test kitchen, located at CASL's headquarters in Chinatown, 2141 S. Tan Court.
"Food service has always been in demand. People have to eat," Lam said.
Tuition is $5,000, but nearly all of the students are low-income adults living in the state who get their fees waived. The program itself is funded mostly by federal and state aid, with about 30 percent of its budget coming from foundation grants and donations.
The largest expense is the cost of food, but the students eat for lunch what they prepare and cook in class.
Leon Wei Long Mei moved to Chicago from China eight months ago and said he's already learned to make a very good Hollandaise sauce.
Although he's been working as a part-time restaurant busboy, the 29-year-old said he knew he needed a training program like CASL's to really start his life in America. Learning English remains his biggest obstacle.
"I think the question is not what I want to do, but if I had any opportunity, at my age, I should try," he said in Cantonese. "Every new place and each position will have more learning opportunities to make me better."
As for Yuen, he moved to the country in 1989 from China and worked in various kitchen jobs. His big break didn't come until about 10 years ago, when he left CASL's chef training program to take a line cook job at the then-relatively new Peninsula Hotel restaurant. His rank-and-file climb to the top of the kitchen command peaked in 2010, when he was named chef de cuisine.
He's always aspired to a high-profile job like the one he has now, he said, running a kitchen that serves an average of 150 guests a night and crafting special menus for Chicago's local elites and well-to-do visitors alike.
"When I was really young, I liked the cooking. I liked the eating," he said.
For more information on Chicago Tribune Charities, go to chicagotribune.com/holidaygiving.
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