Kyle Demelo reluctantly posed for a photo at Café 335 last month. He’s completed his Culinary Skills Training Program through Vancouver Community College and his six-week work experience at the café at 335 West Pender St. He’s a month away from finishing his professional cook level one training at VCC, is planning to pursue his level two and wants his progress to be recognized.
“It was very interesting being able to get myself into college through this program,” said the 27-year-old with a neck tattoo. “I didn’t know I would be able to do that without going back and getting my high school.”
Coast Mental Health, a non-profit that provides housing and support services to people with mental illness, has partnered with VCC to train youth aged 19 to 30 to be entry level cooks.
Demelo copes with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He was referred to the Culinary Skills Training Program by a youth and family worker because he’d previously worked in a restaurant and wasn’t doing much with his time.
Once he completes his level two training at VCC, Demelo wants to cook in a work camp to make “a bunch of money.” He’s interested in owning a food cart one day.
“Kyle, he used to have a lot of anger and through the program he’s learned how to just try and control his temper and think before he speaks,” said Café 335 manager LeeAnn Deacon. “He’s grown quite a bit.”
Clinton Robinson also wasn’t doing much when his case worker at the Grandview Woodland Mental Health Team suggested he apply.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” said the 24-year-old who struggled with anxiety and depression when he started training. “At first, my mind was always racing.”
But he persevered and thrived.
Robinson was initially quiet and shy and struggled to be on time, says Jason Payne, the coordinator for the Culinary Skills Training Program, who works alongside the trainees. But Robinson became bold, requesting a full-time job at the café.
“So he had to really prove himself and work hard to get that,” Payne said.
“And now he’s able to tell people what to do,” Deacon added. “He’s come quite far.”
Café 335 runs on the ground floor of Pacific Coast Apartments, a supportive housing development operated by Coast Mental Health on one of 14 city-owned sites dedicated to social housing.
Darrell Burnham, executive director of Coast Mental Health, said the building included a commercial kitchen and a shell of a space that the city had no interest in running, so the café was developed as a social enterprise and a training ground along with partner VCC.
Youth train at the college for a month and then with a VCC chef instructor at 335 West Pender for four months. They prepare food for the building’s 90 residents.
Trainees transformed the café that serves lunch and breakfast on weekdays into a restaurant with a set-price, three-course meal for Valentine’s Day.
They braised short ribs and rolled homemade gnocchi.
“We did a venison carpaccio so they learned all the different types of cooking techniques that day, and then they also were trained for front of the house, so serving, opening wine,” Deacon said. “It was really cool.”
Seventeen of the 25 youth who started the program graduated, and Payne has helped some of the graduates secure jobs in the industry. Others have continued to work at the café and some, like Demelo, have chosen to further their culinary education.
Café 335 delivers lunch and caters, and Deacon is brainstorming other ways work in the kitchen could simmer past the café’s closing hour of 2 p.m.
The Diamond Foundation and Coast Capital Savings recently provided $50,000 to the program for job training.
Coast Mental Health also operates a landscaping business.