GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Youth empowerment organization, Railroad Street Youth Project , serving young people in southern Berkshire County, is getting ready for dinner. Its much-anticipated Annual Culinary Arts Celebration will take place on Monday, December 7th at 5:30 p.m. at Crissey Farm. This evening is the culminating event for the RSYP Apprenticeship Program (RAP), which offers work-based apprenticeship opportunities to young people in southern Berkshire County.
We spoke with Caitlin Hugel, Apprenticeships and Careers Coordinator and Sexual Health Education Faciliator about the program. She explained how the public can savor the results of the participants’ hard work at the annual Culinary Apprenticeship dinner.
We also got a chance to talk briefly with Devon VanDeusen, who is in his first year of the apprenticeship, but has already discovered both a talent and appreciation of cooking great food.
Lastly, we caught up with Chef Brian Alberg, long-time local food advocate and fixture at the Red Lion Inn, now generating a lot excitement for his latest project, Eat on North, the fine dining destination within the brand new Hotel on North in Pittsfield.
To people who work in social services, the phrase has meaning. The same is true for professionals in the systems of education or justice or health care.
At risk youth.
The exact definition will include varying details and examples, depending on whose kaleidoscope you look through. A police officer might not associate the phrase with the same young people that a school guidance counselor does.
If the phrase conjures up anything for the general public, the image of at risk youth might include groups of shadowy, slightly menacing ruffians at the margins of society destined to either grow out of it or end up in jail.
But a child psychologist could likely point to countless case files of children from affluent homes that fall squarely within the parameters of at risk youth.
That the phrase is inherently vague accounts for the distance between occupational interpretations. But that fuzziness is also a strength for a term that encompasses impacts on physical, emotional, and social development of children.
In answer to the question, “at risk of what,” the response depends on the environments and influences that surround any given child. Drug use. Gang violence. Sexual assault. Malnourishment. Academic abandonment.
What all of these factors have in common is their tendency to severe or damage the connections between young people and the elements of culture that sustain healthy development into adulthood.
The Railroad Street Youth Projectin Great Barrington, Massachusetts has been helping young people repair or rebuild those connections since about 1999. Through services available through the drop-in center, at-risk youth recover their future, in part, by discovering themselves.
Through Railroad Street’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program, young people reconfigure their realities through one of the most powerful connections to culture possible: Food.
Under the tutelage of some of the most well-known and and well-respected Chef’s on the East Coast, students learn the skills necessary to get started on their way to a successful culinary career in an award-winning kitchen.
As they do, they ingest the ingredients that go into healthy maturity: self-respect discipline, confidence, creativity, and perseverance.
At the conclusion of the term, students work with their mentor chefs to design, prepare, and present a gourmet tasting menu to showcase their skills to family, friends, and the community.
The story of the Culinary Apprenticeship program at Railroad Street is infused with tremendous levels of compassion, determination, and a willingness to trust in the alchemy of the kitchen to repair what was broken, and to shield the vulnerability of the students young spirits. In the voices of our guests on this episode is evidence of the plenty that can be reclaimed by following a recipe for humanity.
Through RAP’s culinary arts apprenticeships, young people learn food preparation and presentation for eight weeks under five master chefs including Brian Alberg of The Red Lion Inn, Dan Smith of John Andrews Restaurant, Daire Rooney of Allium, Adam Brassard of The Williams Inn, and Zee Vassos of Firefly. These renowned local chefs mentor RSYP’s aspiring culinary professionals throughout the fall and guide them in preparing a five-course menu for their families, friends and the community. The evening will also include a certificate ceremony to honor the young chefs and a live service auction to support RSYP and its mission to empower youth.
”Last year was the first time we held a single dinner to honor our talented young chefs rather than two separate events,” says Railroad Street Youth Project’s Executive Director Ananda Timpane. “We found that the single event really unified and galvanized the community around the program. We are so grateful for the support that the community has given us, and we look forward to making this year’s dinner as inspiring and memorable as last year’s.”
The program is a positive experience for both young and mentor chefs alike. Chef Adam Brassard, who has acted as a mentor chef for the past four years, says. “Working with kids is awesome, and what better way than through food? The energy and creativity they have for learning culinary arts is amazing. Their faces light up, and they truly enjoy what they cook. It’s fun!”
Railroad Street Youth Project has presented these dinners since 2006, when RAP was first launched. Since then, over 200 young people from Berkshire County have participated in apprenticeships not only in the culinary arts, but also in cosmetology, photography, massage therapy and entrepreneurship, gaining valuable skills and experience and, in many cases, job opportunities with local businesses.
Nineteen year-old participant Katrina Hodes is enthusiastic about the program. “My passion is cooking,” she says. “I love making food for other people and I like that this apprenticeship program supports me in improving my skills.”
This is the second year Katrina has participated in the program. “I got an award last year and that was really nice,” she states. “It felt good to be recognized and I felt really proud. I still have the certificate in my room.”
Tickets to the Annual Culinary Arts Celebration will be on sale Saturday, November 1st for $125 per person. Tables are also available for purchase.
To purchase tickets or learn more about how you can support Railroad Street Youth Project, visit www.rsyp.org or call the RSYP office at 413-528-2475. All proceeds from the event support RSYP’s youth development programs and activities.
About the Participating Chefs
- Brian Alberg is executive chef and director of food and beverage at The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge and The Williams Inn in Williamstown. He is a staunch supporter of the local food movement and has established strong relationships with regional farmers and food producers, purchasing more than $650K in local foods annually
- Dan Smith is the owner and executive chef of John Andrews Restaurant in South Egremont. He is committed to buying local, organic, sustainable products and works with area small farmers and producers to develop his menu around their products.
- Daire Rooney has been chef of Allium Restaurant + Bar in Great Barrington since 2012 after working as the personal chef to actress Meryl Streep, executive chef at De La Vergne Restaurant, executive chef at Brix in Pittsfield and as lead chef at the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament.
Adam Brassard is the executive chef at The Williams Inn in Williamstown, where he is committed to using local, seasonal ingredients.
- Zee Vassos, chef at Firefly in Lenox, continually creates dynamic and extensive menus that draw food lovers from all over New England.
About Railroad Street Youth Project
At RSYP, youth take the lead. They explore their full potential and become equipped to meet the challenging transition to adulthood. RSYP’s professional staff matches youth-generated ideas with community resources, empowering youth to create and oversee a wide range of innovative, life-changing projects. Unmatched in mission and scope, RSYP excels in helping youth find their voice and realize the benefits of their commitment to themselves and their community.
RSYP serves 14-25 year old residents of Southern Berkshire County and the surrounding area through mentoring and apprenticeship programs, a sexual health education initiative, an all-youth board that funds innovative, youth-inspired projects and trips, job training and career counseling, and a drop-in center offering referrals, mediation, and advocacy services. Railroad Street Youth Project’s drop-in center is located at 60 Bridge St., Great Barrington, MA.