Shin rolled out the cookie dough. Asia has brought back the onions. Christopher fried the tortilla chips. Richard cooked the pinto beans.
The kitchen at Arc Los Angeles and Orange Counties in Downey was bustling with activity.
For the past two weeks, the nonprofit’s culinary students — seven men, ages 22 to 41, dressed in black chef’s coats with metal tags reading their first names and “Future Chef” – had prepared breakfast and lunch for a human resources department. conference. It was the last day, and lunch would be a feast for 50 of chicken tinga, cochinita pibil, and bean and potato tacos.
The students are all on the autism spectrum. Christopher was left largely alone. Richard monitored the pinto beans with a timer that he diligently reset every time it went off. Sean crushed the guacamole while an Arc staff member held the bowl. Kristian, the talkiest of the group, needed encouragement from Arc executive chef Bev Lazo-Gonzalez to focus on his work.
Otherwise, they were like any other chef in a restaurant kitchen, except they were not allowed to handle knives.
“I love being able to show their families that they are capable of handling big projects like the one we are doing now,” said sous chef Virginia Reynosa, 37, who has worked at the Arc since 2013. “They are surprised at what their (autistic family members) can do.
“I’m tough on them because I tell them, ‘I want you to be ready,’ and they take it,” Lazo-Gonzalez, 53, said. Her son Josef is on the autism spectrum and was helping her that day. . Usually, he takes classes at Cerritos College, where he majors in music.
The gas stoves roared. The pots clattered. Industrial-sized blenders whirred. People were shouting in restaurant lingo: “Behind!” ” “Corner!” “I’m coming, hot!” – as Maroon 5 and Selena played loudly from a Pandora station.
Lazo-Gonzalez walked around checking on everyone’s progress. Sometimes she would step in to demonstrate techniques: Use regular salt instead of kosher salt on cookie dough. Knead the pork for the cochinita pibil so that it better absorbs the citrus marinade. To cook rice the best way — the Filipino way, she says — fill a rice cooker with water just below the second knuckle of your middle finger.
Mostly, she offered words of encouragement peppered with “honey” and “love.”
“All week you were preparing for this,” she told her crew before taking a short break. And she had news: the conference wanted to add to her order.
“It’s a little late, but we’re going to make it work,” she said. Then she smiled. “Who needs coffee like me?”
Everyone raised their hands and applauded.
Since 1956, The Arc has provided services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including art classes, field trips and job training, from a small complex of buildings in the industrial part of Downey. Six years ago, the nonprofit organization launched a free culinary arts program that prepares clients to work in the restaurant industry as cooks and dishwashers.
This summer, the Arc launched an ambitious project to bring the real-world experience to life, repurposing a banquet hall so that it could be rented, with catering provided by students. The two-week conference was their first big test.
A previous administration had transformed the Arc’s kitchen into an industrial-sized place, but CEO Emilio Sosa — who also serves as chairman of the Los Nietos School District board — felt attendees weren’t getting much out of it. the best part.
“The banquet hall looks like it’s from the 1980s,” Sosa said in an interview from his office. “They only prepared sandwiches and salads for our other participants. If our goal is to give them a real experience, then we needed to transform the kitchen into a place conducive to that.
Sosa’s idea was also born out of necessity. In fall 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill prohibiting paying workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage, which had been authorized under a 1938 federal law intended to make it easier to hire them. Supporters of the bill argued that it allowed disabled workers to be exploited.
Many Arc clients who were employed lost their jobs shortly afterward as businesses balked at paying minimum wage. Due to rising labor costs, Arc’s on-site packing warehouse, which employed former clients, had to close. It was later relaunched as a thrift store with a significantly reduced staff before closing due to lack of sales.
“Employers don’t want to jump in for our participants: catering is a way to showcase them,” Sosa said.
“They keep telling me they miss work,” Lazo-Gonzalez said. Under his guidance, everyone trains seven hours a day, five days a week, with a mix of practical workshops and lectures. They still prepare lunch every day for other Arc participants, but have enhanced their offerings with weekly specials based on Lazo-Gonzalez’s recipes or their own suggestions. They can also do off-site catering.
“If I ever opened a restaurant, they would be my first hire,” said Lazo-Gonzalez, a veteran of high-end restaurant chains like Border Grill and Slapfish. “A lot of people in restaurants start out thinking they’re a rock star. Here, everyone is grateful just for the chance.
She tries to organize field trips but gets little response from restaurants and grocery stores.
“I know they’re busy,” Lazo-Gonzalez said with a disappointed look on his face, “but we want the guys to see what’s going on.”
Just before lunchtime, I asked some aspiring Arc chefs how they felt.
“It helps me improve my future and make my dreams come true,” said Asia, who started a few months ago. (The Arc does not disclose clients’ last names, citing privacy concerns.)
“I’m learning a lot,” Christopher said.
Richard had worked in a warehouse for a while but didn’t like it “because they weren’t nice.” He and Sean were moonlighting for the day, and although he doesn’t want to work in the restaurant industry, “I love working and I want to work.”
“It’s fun, what we do,” Kristian said. He is set to leave the program after four years to enter the Arc’s career development track and hopes to be the first of his peers to land a job in the culinary world. “I gain skills and friends.
“OK,” he then snapped, “let me get back into the swing of things!”
By the time the conference was ready for lunch, the energy in the kitchen had increased. A few guys went to serve at the buffet, while the others cleaned up what was left – not much, since everyone was wiping down their workstations before moving on to another task.
Near the center of the banquet hall, the conference organizers were delighted with their experience.
“The quality of the food and the professionalism was incredible,” said Elsa Leal from Monrovia. “I think I want to have my daughter’s quinceañera here.”
“It’s a great way for them to showcase what they do,” added Whittier resident Laura Ramirez.
“A lot of times you go somewhere for a conference and they don’t have everything,” Yvette Martin said. “Here, they’re just pros.”
While the conference attendees ate, the Arc team retreated to a private room so Lazo-Gonzalez and Reynosa could serve them lunch. Someone had written “Good luck” on a whiteboard. I joined them for a delicious meal with the added bonus of grilled chili güeritos.
The next day, they would enjoy a day off with pizza and karaoke. Soon after, they would begin planning a Harry Potter-themed dinner for October, which would be their first attempt at serving the general public, something Lazo-Gonzalez wants to do once a month. Right now, they were chatting like any other break room.
Kristian asked Josef about a Blink 182 concert he attended. This transformed the conversation with their favorite bass players. Asia showed me YouTube videos. Richard, Sean, and Christopher ate in silence, until someone started thinking out loud about what Lazo-Gonzalez should teach them to prepare next.
Ricardo, who had been largely silent that morning, suggested enchiladas. Shin countered with kimchi rice.
“Pasta carbonara,” Asia replied.
“Quite a lechon!” » Kristian blurted, which made an impressed Lazo-Gonzalez laugh.
“You all have to be here at five in the morning for this!” Are you all ready?
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This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.