Kishon Southy’s teenage years were troubled.
“I was doing coke, ecstasy, drinking pints of liquor right after work,” he said. “I have pictures of me with a gallon of Jack in my hand at a park late at night.”
Now 22, Southy is sober, works out at the gym, and has a well-paying job at Cosmopolitan Catering in Sunnyvale.
It’s safe to say, he noted, that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the Culinary Academy at Rebekah Children’s Services in Gilroy.
“It’s literally done my life a 360,” Southy said. “I wouldn’t have any of the family or friends that I have now without this program. I wouldn’t have pursued this lifestyle without this program. I wouldn’t even have thought twice about being who I am now.”
After 10 years, the Culinary Academy has helped 1,100 youth ages 15-25, many of whom have a similar story to Southy’s, find a career and the life skills needed to become successful.
The completely grant-funded organization is holding its fifth annual fundraiser, Pop-a-Cork, on May 9 at Clos LaChance Vineyards in San Martin. Guests will have the chance to sample a selection of delicacies prepared by the students, try out award-winning wines and listen to live music.
Funds raised at the event will go back to the Culinary Academy, which prepares young people for a career in the hospitality industry. Instructors guide students through the 10-week course, with three-hour sessions meeting twice per week.
The program trains young people, many of whom come from a background of abuse, homelessness or other traumatic experiences, in the ins and outs of cooking and running a professional kitchen.
Upon completing the program, the students earn their Food Handlers card and have the opportunity to be placed in a paid apprenticeship program in the social-enterprise bakery Kneaded. The bakery caters a variety of events, and all proceeds are injected back into the Culinary Academy.
Chef Carlos Pineda, who manages the academy and bakery, said the main focus of the program is to teach youth how to be self-sufficient. The program also gives students a chance to build their self-esteem, he said, as well as a place where they feel they belong.
“We give them the opportunity to be unique individuals,” he said. “They get to show their true colors.”
Statistics show that the program is working: In the last six years, 98 percent of academy alumni have found a job, according to Pineda. Many have not only gone on to local restaurants and hotels, but also to Michelin-star restaurants across the country.
“It’s just a great feeling to know they are out there,” Pineda said. “I see them all the time.”
Pineda, who has been with the program for 10 years, said he is often asked why he does the work that he does.
“I grew up on the same streets that they did, I grew up in the same town, I went to the same public schools as they did,” he said. “I feel like I need to do this. I feel like this is my calling. We’ve had so much success, and the students feel that they can interact with me and trust me. It’s hard to gain the trust of a youth.
“They are always going to need someone. I’m glad I can be that one person.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, apprentices in the program were busy searing lamb, chopping tomatoes, and making sure the dishes they were putting out had the tidiest presentation, important since that day a professional photographer was snapping shots of their work. The photographs will be on display at the academy and used in marketing materials to reflect an updated menu.
Andrew Briggs serves as catering coordinator, and has been with the program for more than three years.
He said the fast-paced environment can be stressful, like any professional kitchen. But unlike many kitchens, he said the fact that the profits are going to a good cause makes it all worthwhile.
“The stability, the cause, the wonderful people that I’ve gotten to meet and cook with, that’s what really kept me here,” said Briggs, 19.
One of the main supporters of the academy is Christopher Ranch, which not only provides “garlic for life,” Pineda said, but gives out scholarships for students to attend Gavilan College. Now in its second year, three students are chosen annually among many applicants.
A beneficiary of the scholarship is Butterfly Piña, who started the academy when she was 16 and now serves as lead apprentice.
“Throughout my whole life, I’ve always liked to cook,” she said. “I would always cook with my dad in the kitchen. Here, it taught me more knife skills, more social skills. The skills I learned gave me more of a professional insight on how to communicate with others.”
Talk to any of the students in the academy, and chances are they will have nothing but positive things to say about their chef.
Briggs praised Pineda, who he said keeps in constant contact with program alumni. Many have come back to volunteer in the kitchen as a result of Pineda maintaining relationships.
“That positive relationship with alumni has kept [the academy] going,” Briggs said.
Even though Southy has completed the program and has a full-time job, he said he comes back to help out “for fun.” He said he is constantly telling Pineda how much he changed his life for the better.
“The one thing that really helped me out is all the connections he has,” said Southy, who is now training to be a sous chef at Cosmopolitan Catering. “He’s able to open doors for students. He is able to open door after door after door.
“He’s the man.”
The fifth annual Pop-a-Cork, benefiting the Culinary Academy at Rebekah Children’s Services, will be held May 9, 5:30-9pm at Clos LaChance Vineyards in San Martin. Admission is $75 per person. For tickets and information, visit www.rcskids.org/pop-a-cork.