Starting From Scratch.

For the past nine years, men from across the country have come to Springfield’s Victory Trade School looking to the culinary arts for a new lease on life. What they’ve found are not only the skills necessary for a promising career, but the confidence they need to stay on a straight path.

story by Sarah Elms / photos by Sarah Elms
published August 24, 2012

It’s just before 4 a.m. at the corner of Commercial and Boonville on the north side of Springfield, Mo. Everything is still, calm and quiet. If you peek through the glass windows of the first floor of the building that sits on the corner, you’ll see an empty buffet, chairs placed upside down on tables and yesterday’s specials still listed on the whiteboard.

Two stories up, the early-morning silence is punctured by buzzing and ringing coming from the student dorm rooms that line one half of the hallway. The students have another busy day ahead of them. They need to be awake and downstairs by 4:30 to prep and open the restaurant for breakfast at 6.

For many, this schedule is a drastic change. They don’t fit the mold of traditional students. Before they came here, most had been struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, some were living in shelters, all were lacking the skills necessary to land a full-time job. They are all males, ranging in age from their early 20s to late 50s, and they’ve come to Springfield to start a new life.

The restaurant, called Cook’s Kettle, is student-run as part of Victory Trade School’s culinary program. Victory Trade School is a non-profit project of Springfield’s Victory Mission, whose mantra is “eliminating poverty from the inside out.” The mission is a non-denominational Christian ministry that provides food, housing, clothing and household items.

Through the Victory Trade School, it is also able to offer GED classes and Bible-based recovery programs for both genders — PREP [1] for men and New Life for women — focused on spiritual wellness and vocational training, all of which are designed to help men and women struggling to get back on their feet. The school’s most popular opportunity, however, is its year-long, nationally accredited culinary curriculum for men.

Cook’s Kettle is open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. Students rotate through various roles in the restaurant over the course of the year — waiting tables, running the cash register, prepping food and creating specials — learning the skills it takes to work in the culinary profession. When 1 o’clock rolls around, the students eat lunch, clean up the restaurant and kitchen, and then head back upstairs for an afternoon of class.

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Patrons enjoy a quick lunch break at Victory Trade School's second "learning laboratory," RESTAURANT NAME.
(Above) Patrons enjoy a quick lunch break at Victory Trade School’s second learning laboratory, The Branch Bistro & Catering. (At top) Executive Chef Brian Romano and recent Victory Trade School graduate Eric Wallace hang out in the kitchen.

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The Victory Mission has been active in Springfield for 35 years, serving individuals and families who for one reason or another are finding it difficult to meet their basic needs. But up until nine years ago, something important was missing from its services: education.

So, the mission acquired property on Commercial Street and got to work establishing a school.

Victoria Queen, who has been president of Victory Trade School since its opening in September 2003, says when she was first developing the concept for the school, she didn’t know if culinary arts was going to be the main focus. “At one time, I had seven different projects that people brought and said, ‘Hey, we want to do this,’ and somewhere in all of that, culinary just kept coming up,” Queen says. “I was like, let’s do one thing, and let’s do it really good.”

It started out small, but the school grew quickly. Just 20 days after Queen opened the doors for classes, Cook’s Kettle was up and running. Now, the culinary program includes two restaurants — what the school calls its “learning laboratories” — a greenhouse, a catering program and a constant flow of students.

Most of the students have a history of drug or alcohol addiction, and they must complete a recovery program before enrolling in the school. The school has open enrollment, so students can come in at any time of the year.

Before students can enter any of Victory Trade School’s programs — whether it’s culinary, PREP or New Life — they must go through a one-month candidacy period. Candidacy serves as a trial-run for students, to make sure the school is the place where they want to be, and to get them back into the academic mindset. During this month, they take basic core classes, such as creative writing, communications and nutrition, and begin their internships at one of the learning laboratories.

Executive Chef Brian Romano, dean of culinary arts at Victory Trade School, says once the students go through candidacy, the instructors sit down as a group and create a plan of action to help each student succeed. He says the school’s greatest strength is the individualized attention that instructors are able to give to their students. “We have close to a three-to-one student-teacher ratio,” Romano says, “which is ridiculous.” [2]

Romano has been in the culinary business since 1987 and has worked in conference centers and resorts across the country. He’s a certified executive chef through the American Culinary Federation and has a degree in restaurant management. He says the point of attaining these credentials was to get to a place where he was actually teaching.

“It’s teaching, it’s a restaurant, it’s open, it’s practical, it’s hands-on education — all those things were very appealing to me,” Romano says. “So that’s how I got to this place.”

The culinary curriculum includes seven required National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) classes: food production, marketing, customer service, serve safe [3], cost control, human resources, and management. There is a NRAEF final exam issued for each class that students must pass in order to receive their certification, but all the coursework leading up to the exam is dictated by the school. This setup gives instructors the ability to tailor lectures to the pace of their students.

Outside of the classroom, students complete internships with one of the school’s two restaurants, Cook’s Kettle or The Branch Bistro & Catering, where they learn firsthand the ins and outs of food service.

“There’s three hours of practical work to every one hour of sitting in a seat in the classroom,” Queen says. “So it really is a lot of hands-on learning.”

When the school first started, before its accreditation, the culinary program was only a six-month cycle. Instructors soon learned that six months was not enough and extended the curriculum to a full year. The staff says students find jobs almost immediately upon graduation; restaurants, catering services and conference centers regularly call the school looking for chefs.

“In many respects, when our students leave here, they are more prepared for positions in food service than even a lot of culinary graduates,” Romano says. “That’s my opinion as a culinary graduate.”

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Victoria Queen, president and founder of Victory Trade School
Victoria Queen, president of Victory Trade School.

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Victory Trade School’s curriculum has gained national recognition in recent years. In 2010, the National Restaurant Association chose Cook’s Kettle as Missouri’s state finalist for its Restaurant Neighbor Award, last year the school won World Magazine’s sixth annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion [4], and this year Queen has been asked to join Missouri’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

“We do get a lot of kudos for how we’ve set everything up and what it is, you know, and how we do adhere to what our accrediting body wants,” Queen says. “But a lot of times, people right here in town are like, I didn’t even know you were there.”

Queen says she thinks part of people’s lack of awareness about the school is that it is often overshadowed by its long-established parent company, Victory Missions. But out in the education world, Victory Trade School is well known.

Eric Wallace heard about Victory Trade School from a rescue mission out in his home state of California. He was out of a job, and the Merced County Rescue Mission asked Wallace, What is your dream or goal? “And I said I wanted to be a cook, and they said, Well, we could send you to a place, and they could help you,” Wallace says.

At first, Wallace was nervous about leaving California and his family; he’d never been out of the state. Now he’s been in Springfield for two years, and he’s not planning on leaving anytime soon. He completed Victory Trade School’s culinary program as one of its star students. After graduating this past spring, Wallace spent the summer as an assistant chef at a Boy Scout camp. He’s now back at Victory Trade School, this time working full-time as a prep cook at The Branch Bistro & Catering.

“It’s like a magnet,” Wallace says of the place. “It just pulls you back.”

Queen says Wallace’s transformation was exactly what she wants to see from students. When he first came to Victory Trade School, he was anxious and reserved; you would never know it to see him now. Wallace is one of the friendliest faces at the school. “He would just kind of look at the floor, but he just really came right out of that,” Queen says. “All the students love him.”

She says it’s common to see anxiety in students when they first arrive, which is why instructors not only focus on culinary skills, but on teaching interpersonal skills and building confidence.

Wallace says the schedule is tiring, but worth it in the long run. “There was times I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. I had a certain person that wouldn’t let me quit,” Wallace says. That certain person was the front-of-house [5] manager at Cook’s Kettle. “He basically took me under his wing,” Wallace says.

It isn’t uncommon for these students to gravitate toward a mentor. For many who go through programs at Victory Trade School, the skills they learn are just as important as the people they meet.

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Students prepare two specials each day at the Cook's Kettle restaurant, one sandwich and one chef plate.
The daily specials, prepared by Victory Trade School students, are displayed at the front of the Cook’s Kettle restaurant.

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Although the school has been open since 2003, it still has a lot of room to grow. Currently, the culinary program is only available to male students, although its accreditation doesn’t bar either gender from attaining certification. The only reason the program is not currently open to women is because the school does not have the necessary facilities to house female students.

Queen says they’re working on it, but for now the school only offers the New Life discipleship program for women.

Kara Pyle has been a part of the New Life program since December, and she says she’s loved every minute of it. Before New Life, Pyle was addicted to drugs and had her children taken away from her. Now, she has her kids back and her life back on track.

“It’s really busy, but it’s really good because when you come in, the majority of us were on drugs, and so, you know, when we get bored that’s when most of our triggers [go off],” she says. “So we’re busy with classes and work and then classes again … but if we can run for our drugs, we can run to be sober. That’s how I see it.”

Pyle’s been sober for more than a year, and she credits that to a renewed faith in God. New Life includes a lot of Bible-focused classes, but internships are part of the program as well. Each student spends time working at the mission’s food pantry, its daycare, its thrift store (called Victory Vintage) and at The Branch Bistro & Catering.

“I’ve got lots of skills now. A lot,” Pyle says. “If I can get through this, I can make it out there. No problem. Because this is harder than out there. It really is.”

Pyle’s favorite job so far has been working at the restaurant. She says if the school could find housing that would enable it to open the culinary program to women, she’d do it in a heartbeat, especially since she wouldn’t have to pay anything out of pocket.

The Victory Trade School participates in Title IV Pell Grants, but not in a loan program. Anything that the Pell Grants don’t cover, the school funds through scholarship programs. “We don’t want our students to get saddled with loans,” Queen says.

Some people say it’s too good to be true, but Queen reminds them they are working for every penny of their education. Students say the hard work is all worth it, though. They are learning the skills they need to be self-sufficient.

“It’s an experience itself,” Wallace says with a smile. “It’s just good to come out here and learn what you love. I like to cook, I just hate to clean up after myself.”