Learning to prepare Western cuisine helps immigrants build careers

By Serena Yeh
Medill Reports

Less than a year ago, Daisy Cao moved to Chicago from the Chinese city of Wenzhou with her husband and two kids. From working as an assistant manager in an international travel service firm there and then making the transition to being a housewife and cooking daily here, Cao realized she enjoyed cooking and harbored ambitions to get a culinary job.

The 42-year-old joined the Chinese American Service League’s Culinary Training Program, now in its 92nd session, a 16-week hands-on learning class that trains students in Western cuisine.

“After I immigrate to here, firstly, I stayed home, I had no job, so I cooking a lot. I love to cook so I come here maybe get a different kind of life I can change,” she said, adding that she hopes her training will lead to work in a school cafeteria in the future.

CASL started the program in 1985 to help new immigrants learn new skills to allow them to find jobs, said Ben Lau, CASL’s employment and financial empowerment manager.

The program has since expanded to anyone from any community who is interested in searching for a job, he said.

“Our main goal is to help them find this job in the culinary field,” said employment coordinator Jacqueline Liang, who added that most of their participants are still new immigrants.

“We are kind of leaning towards the Western-style cooking, not anything like the small restaurants that you see around. Basically, we want to also place them in hotels, like those more upscale-type of places where they can continue to move up in the culinary field.”

The class is taught by chef Anastasia Barantchouk in English. Instructor Raymond Lau, who speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, helps translate the class for students who are weaker in the language. Raymond Lau also teaches an additional one-week language class before the program begins for students who need more help in vocational English.

To Barantchouk, the goal for the class is “to place them in jobs, not just any jobs but jobs with benefits, steady hours, decent pays.”

A typical day in the kitchen starts with Barantchouk demonstrating the menu while explaining the theory and cooking methods involved. In the afternoon, after students produce, present and explain their dish to the instructors, they are taught sanitation skills.

Students graduate from the program with a state-accredited culinary-training-program certificate and a sanitation license, said Ben Lau.

According to CASL’s website, the program has trained and placed over 1,500 students in full-time culinary positions. The recently graduated 91st class of students were also all offered jobs, added Liang.

“People come here, say from China, especially for women, they are saying that their only options are to be a cleaner, or a homemaker or work in a nail salon. They think, ‘I don’t have a lot of options,’” said Barantchouk, adding that the program offers them a new career path.

Yet, more than just helping the new immigrants find jobs in the culinary field, the program also helps students adjust to life in a new country, she said.

“Some students would come to us and say, ‘You know before, I was actually afraid to order things at a Western restaurant because I had no idea, and now I have an improved quality of life because I can go and say, I will have this, this is what I like,’ so they’ve said, you know, this changed my life just being able to do that, when you’re a new immigrant especially,” added Barantchouk.

Cao agreed that she is now able to go to Western restaurants confidently. She has also started cooking Western cuisine for her family, something she had never done before.

John Zhou, 34, who has been in Chicago for more than three years and was previously working in a Chinese restaurant at Elmwood Park, said the program exposed him to a new realm of cuisine and has led him to aspire to work in a Western restaurant.

“Chinese and Western cooking are really different. I’ve already experienced Chinese cooking but I don’t know what style Western cooking is in,” Zhou said in Mandarin.

“In cooking, the goals are always very high. It’s your own decision on how much you want to attain. When you experience more in the world, then you can learn more.”

Photo at top: Daisy Cao (center) works in her group of three to create the dish of the day – Mushroom Ravioli with White Wine Cream Sauce. (Serena Yeh/MEDILL)