Cincinnati COOKS! Opens Doors

Mediaon June 5th, 2017Comments Off on Cincinnati COOKS! Opens Doors

It was a Saturday afternoon just like any other at the state prison. Mike Doty was perched awkwardly on a stool in the corner of a bare room, his shoulders hunched as he tried to keep the conversation private. He was on the phone with his mom at the end of yet another long and uneventful week.  This was certainly the high point of his week – when he heard his mom’s voice and listened with pride to stories about his children. He always made it a point to sound upbeat in those conversations, so he could keep her spirits up.  Mike’s mom was recovering from a car accident that had left her paralyzed.  He thought she sounded particularly weak and distant that day. Mike smiled as his mom described how tall his son had grown and how smart his little girl was. Suddenly he heard what sounded like a crash at the other end, followed by a moan and labored breathing. “Mom!” Mike screamed into the phone. “Can you hear me? Mom! Mom!” He heard gasps on the phone and then to his horror, the line went dead.  Mike’s mother suffered five seizures that afternoon and was found an hour later close to death.

It was Mike’s second term in prison. He had been there for close to four years.  It felt like a lifetime. In addition to his mother’s medical crisis while he was incarcerated, his brother had passed away. When Mike was finally released from prison he was desperate to get his life back on track. He began looking for a job. To his greatest anguish, his prior convictions made it nearly impossible for him to find employment.  He enjoyed cooking and hoped to find work in a restaurant someplace just to make ends meet.  In the midst of looking for a catering position, Mike stumbled upon Freestore Foodbank’s Cincinnati COOKS! program.

Cincinnati COOKS! a free 10-week long culinary training program is offered by the Freestore Foodbank to under and unemployed individuals. The course teaches the basic mechanics of working in a commercial kitchen with the goal of helping students gain employment in the food service industry. Mike was skeptical about whether he would be accepted into the COOKS! program.  Hoping for the best, he put in his application. “I was in total disbelief when they told me I was admitted to the program,” Mike comments. “Having faced rejection so many times, I made up my mind at that moment, to never mess up again.” Mike fell in love with Cincinnati COOKS! and the culinary skills he was taught. He graduated in 10 weeks and it was one of the proudest moments of his life to share his success with his mom.

Mike was offered a job at Aunty’s Homemade Food almost immediately following graduation. This was his first job in a real kitchen. “I was fascinated to watch them make everything from scratch – granola, alfredo sauce and even hickory-smoked bacon!” he remembers with a smile.  A few months later, when the chef at Aunty’s moved to Firehouse Grill in Blue Ash, he took Mike with him. At Firehouse Grill, Mike learned to work in a big kitchen.  He enjoyed the busy, packed atmosphere of the restaurant.  While working at Firehouse, he heard about Second Course, an eight-week extension of the COOKS! job training program by the Freestore Foodbank, that teaches advanced culinary skills. In addition, the program would count as credit towards a Kitchen Management Certificate from Cincinnati State.  Mike was drawn to the idea of learning new skills while at the same time earning college credit.  Before he knew it, he was accepted into Second Course!

Mike describes Second Course as an amazing learning experience.  “I saw myself evolving into a cook. It was tough. But I stuck with it, enjoyed it as much as I could, had fun and learned a lot. The relationships I built in the program kept me going. I had people around me who believed in me and wanted to help me succeed. The friends I made at Cincinnati COOKS! have supported me every step of the way.”

Today, Mike holds the position of Executive Chef at Keystone Bar and Grill, Clifton. As the Executive Chef of Keystone’s largest and busiest location, he is in charge of food and labor costs, ordering supplies and managing the kitchen.  He recently hired three other graduates from Cincinnati COOKS! to work under him. Mike is liked and respected by the staff at Keystone. His leadership skills and attention to detail have contributed to his success. “I am ecstatic to have Michael on our team,” says Ryan Shewmaker, General Manager of Keystone Bar and Grill. “He is an extremely hard worker and a dedicated individual. He is a natural leader.” Mike’s knowledge and expertise are considered extraordinary.  His colleagues look to him for inspiration.  Erin Ennis, Assistant Manager has nothing but praise for him. “We love having him here. His leadership skills, dedication to product quality and product safety are wonderful. And, he makes great soup!”

Mike credits his success to hard work and perseverance. “Cincinnati COOKS! is a wonderful program. You’ll get out of it as much as you put into it. Success is never handed to you. You have to work for it.” Mike feels that his struggles in life taught him lessons he will never forget.  He thanks the Freestore Foodbank for opening doors for him and giving him a second chance.