Patrons & Partnerships

Ep 37: Underground Kitchen with Chef Carl

November 10, 2022 Library Partnership Branch, Alachua County Library District Season 1 Episode 37
Patrons & Partnerships
Ep 37: Underground Kitchen with Chef Carl
Show Notes Transcript

Thanks for joining us for another episode of Patrons & Partnerships, presented by the Library Partnership Branch of the Alachua County Library District.

Our guest today is Carlston Watts, the Executive Chef of Underground Kitchen and the Director of Chef Empowerment, a nonprofit organization that teaches at-risk youth how to cook, with a focus on vocational training and leadership education, and life skill development.

Chef Empowerment: https://chefempowerment.org/
CE Food Science Lab: https://chefempowerment.org/ces-food-science-lab-1
Contact: https://chefempowerment.org/contact-us
Underground Kitchen: https://www.facebook.com/Undergroundkitchen352/

Due to the holidays, this will be the only episode published in November. Our next episode will publish on December 8th.

Visit the Alachua County Library District website to browse our collection and to find other resources and services offered at your favorite, local library!

You can view a transcript of this podcast on ACLD's YouTube Channel.

[music]

Darba:

Welcome to Patrons & Partnerships. Our guest today is Carlston Watts of Chef Empowerment, also known as Chef Carl. Chef Carl, would you like to introduce yourself?

Carl:

Yes, ma'am. Most commonly, everybody knows me by Carl Watts. I'm the Executive Chef of Underground Kitchen. and the Director of Chef Empowerment, a nonprofit organization that teaches at-risk youth how to cook.

Darba:

And could you tell us about your mission?

Carl:

So, Chef Empowerment is our nonprofit organization that partners with a bunch of local organizations to teach their youth how to cook. We focus on vocational training and leadership education, and also life skill development.

Darba:

What inspired you to start Chef Empowerment?

Carl:

So I was a police officer - I worked with GPD for six years. Before I transitioned to being a chef, I worked with an organization called Black on Black Crime Task Force that focused on gang intervention of our youth in Alachua County. So me doing that for that many years, I'm like, hey, I want to transition to another career field. Because at that point in time, me and my wife had got settled in financially, and I always wanted to be a cook. So I started as a dishwasher. Once I became an Executive Chef, I started to try to brainstorm on how I could take my passion for the kids and youth development and apply it to the restaurant industry. And that birthed Chef Empowerment.

Darba:

How does your organization work?

Carl:

So we have a youth program that the kids apply to. They’re paid interns, so they - it's like a job, they come in, they interview, they do the whole process of a professional entry level position into a restaurant. We have an application process, then it requires a working interview. And then if you're selected after the working interview, you're hired on as a paid intern for our program. We do a six week, six to eight week program, and then after the eight weeks of successful completion of the program, then we'll decide where we place you, either in-house or we partner with a bunch of restaurants and allow the kids to work in other restaurants in Gainesville.

Darba:

How does the kids learn about the program? How do they learn how to apply? Know about to apply for it?

Carl:

So we post all of the - when we have intern positions open, we post them on our Facebook page and on our website. Right now we have a summer program going on that we're having the interns apply to right now. That's a paid internship for our new project that we're opening in Duvall Elementary.

Darba:

And who benefits from this program?

Carl:

I think the entire Alachua County, the whole North Central Florida. It’s really important to give back to our youth, especially after the pandemic, as we go into the post pandemic phase, the restaurant industry was hit so hard. And so right now we're seeing a lack of skilled labor, a lack of labor in general. So it's really important for us to start empowering our youth to be able to move into these positions in the restaurant industry if we're gonna continue to have a successful, thriving restaurant industry.

Darba:

Do you know, are there any kids that have went on and used this as a career?

Carl:

Oh, yeah, yeah. So I have - right now, one of my students is graduating, they're graduating and they go to different restaurants. Some of them go to, move to other cities. I have a young lady that’s graduating and moving to Orlando, she has a restaurant job already lined up. She graduates in two days. And so - Darba: Good! Yep, so I'm so proud of her. She's been with me from start to finish, from when the program initially started, she was one of the first applicants. And then she stayed with me all the way up until graduation. And so I'm so proud of her and I'm ready to see what her next phase is. So that way, others can see that and plot the course. Darba: Yes. And say, hey, Naia graduated, she went on, and now she's working at Outback as an entry level manager. But at the same time, she's into that phase now where she knows the basics. She knows how to provide restaurant quality service to her guests. And so at 18 years old, I think that's really, really, really something to be proud of.

Darba:

Yes, it is. Seems like she's kind of set for her future. Carl: Yes, ma'am. Is there anything that you have - do you have any needs from the community that could help with this program?

Carl:

So our program, when we first started, everything we pay for in-house. That was kind of the concept of Underground Kitchen; Underground Kitchen is just our funding mechanism for the program. So we haven't - we didn't get any grants. We didn't get any startup money. We use all of our money in-house. We started with $2,500 at the beginning of the pandemic, and you know, and then of course, our community started to help in and make donations. And that allowed us to build what we have now that pays for the kids. So Underground Kitchen is our financial component. So that way, we don't have to go to the banks. We don't have to apply for all of the grants. Sometimes we just need to be able to do what needs to be done, especially when it involves our kids, especially when the gun violence is through the roof now. Sometimes you don't have the time to sit in the office and say, oh, we need to write up this 30 page grant. No, we need to hire them right now. And that's what Underground Kitchen allows us to do is, we have the funds, we open up for lunch and dinner service. If we need to hire somebody, those intensive cases that we've been seeing lately, we hire them on. It's just something that has to be done, especially if we're going to save our kids from all of the gun violence and crime that's been going on in Gainesville.

Darba:

What is your vision for the future?

Carl:

So I think that for - so, we're opening up this summer, June actually, in a few days, we're opening up the Food Science Lab. That’s at Duvall Elementary. That is going to be where we get down to the science of food, teaching the educational part. We partnered with the school board and the Children's Trust to open up their whole cafeteria and kitchen. It’s going to be like a cafe style where all of the kids will be able to come and eat for free. As long as they provide one hour of academics, they'll be able to eat a restaurant style meal for free. So that's our next venture that's probably going to hold me over for another two years. Unless [laughs] God puts something else on my, on my agenda. But right now I think that's going to be our focus on, is establishing a food hub on the east side of town where it's kinda desolate when it comes down to quality food and fresh vegetables and fruit.

Darba:

Could you speak a little bit more about the youth cooking sessions that's coming up this summer? Carl: Yep. So, um… Our youth cooking sessions. So we partnered with the Children's Trust to be able to go out to different sites, and do youth cooking sessions for the kids free of charge to the organizations that we go out to. Right now we're partnering with just a lot of people just to get out and raise awareness. I'm calling it my nutritional awareness campaign, where I'm just going out and I'm teaching the kids about like, the nutritional facts about carrots and things and celery and how we can make it good and tailor it for our taste buds. A lot of times the kids don't like things because they just haven't been exposed to them. So it's like my way of taking the whole summer and exposing kids to so many different options that they'll have, and they'll be able to try. And then if they don't like it, then we find ways to either alter the recipes to make them like it or we just find something different. But we won't know what the kids like unless we start giving some kids some food, feeding some kids and getting them exposed to some of the different quality of foods, fresh vegetables that's available in Gainesville. Because I get a lot of fresh vegetables and fresh produce. And like some of these kids haven't tried - I read an article a few days ago that said 9% of the kids in North Central Florida, 9% of kids eat vegetables every week, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit. 9%. That means 91% doesn't eat fresh fruit or fresh vegetables each week. And as you know, on the east side of town, we don't have that, that Publix. We don't have that Winn Dixie over there. We have Save-A-Lot, we have Food Lion, we have those places, we got dollar stores, but you don't have places that you can readily get fresh, locally grown, organic fruit and vegetables. They’re just not available. So what I'm gonna do with our partnership with the Children's Trust is just get out and say, Hey, let's try some food. You all don't have to pay for it. My job is to hook you on it, and then you will pay for it later. [laughs] So that's what my objective is for the summer with the cooking sessions is just to raise some awareness. That sounds good. Do you notice that a lot of kids that come through your program, do they really have an interest in wanting to learn how to cook or is it just a job?

Carl:

Yeah, so everybody that I have on our team now has been interested in cooking. Lately, it's been more female applicants, which is a really good thing. Because you - we're talking about being a chef, most people think that it's a male dominated profession, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I know some women that will cook us under the table without a problem. But seeing the young ladies come into the program and seeing them excel gives me hope that one day, this will be a profession that’s equally dominated - men won't run over the kitchen and say, you’ve got to get out. The young ladies have so much passion and they're so dedicated, some of them way more dedicated than I was when I first started. So I'm just, I’m just very optimistic about where they're going to be in the next 10 years.

Darba:

Well, I certainly enjoyed you coming to our podcast today. Carl: Yes, ma’am. You’ve been on our list for some time. We've been wanting to have you here, and hopefully we'll have you back again. Carl: Yes, ma'am.

Carl:

Thank you so much. Darba: Thank you. [music]

Eleanore:

Thanks for listening to Patrons & Partnerships. If you know of an individual or organization you'd like to recommend for an interview, email us at lpsfprogram@gmail.com. To listen to more episodes, find us anywhere you listen to podcasts.