Darrow Montgomery
Darrow Montgomery

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It’s the day before Hyatt Centric’s grand re-opening in Rosslyn. The hotel and its restaurant cityhouse are readying to make a big impression at a party. In the hotel’s expansive kitchen, line cook Jose Hernandez is elbow deep in mixing bowls. He’s never worked a restaurant opening before, and he channels the pressure into hard work. “It’s been a challenge, but you know if something is good, it has to be difficult to do it,” he says, wise beyond his 23 years.

Hernandez moved to Virginia from El Salvador in 2007, when he was 14. High school was a struggle, especially senior year when, at 21, he was older than the rest of his class. Fortunately, his school counselor told him in 2014 about a new organization called La Cocina VA, a Northern Virginia workforce development nonprofit.

It offers Latino immigrants a fully funded, 13-week bilingual course that provides job training, culinary certification, life skills, English-language instruction, and job placement. It also offers an English-only evening class for refugees from the Middle East.

When Hernandez signed on, he became a member of the first class of students that graduated in January 2015. “I already knew how to cook, but just family food from my country,” Hernandez says. “Now my big goal is to have a restaurant. But to do that, I have to grow up in the culinary industry—become a supervisor, a sous chef, an executive chef.” Without La Cocina VA, Hernandez says he would probably be working in landscaping or construction.

About halfway through the 13-week program, students participate in a one-week unpaid apprenticeship known as a “stage” at La Cocina VA’s various partners, including Hyatt, Whole Foods, Lebanese Taverna, Lia’s, and various companies such as Purple Onion Catering Co.

After completing the program, graduates start a one-month paid internship back at the food service provider where they apprenticed with the hope that it materializes into a full-time job. Most of the time it does—70 percent of La Cocina VA graduates find full-time jobs in the industry. Jose Hernandez had to work elsewhere before a job freed up at the Hyatt, but he found his way back.

Karina Herrera and Jose Hernandez by Laura Hayes

“Jose is the poster boy of La Cocina, how successful it can be,” says Ralf Hofmann, the director of operations at Hyatt Centric and board member at La Cocina VA. “He’s one of the guys who has drive.”

The day before the hotel’s big party, Hernandez has some help in the prep area from Karina Herrera, a member of La Cocina VA’s ninth class of students. “Apparently, she’s one of the best ones,” Hofmann says. “She reminds me of Jose back in the day with her determination.”

Herrera is a typical La Cocina VA student—90 percent of participants are women, and many are overcoming troubled pasts. “One thing you’re going to find as a common denominator is the profile of the students,” says founder and CEO Patricia Funegra. “They’re low-income, unemployed women from cases of domestic abuse, human trafficking, or chronic unemployment.”

Herrera moved from Mexico to Virginia in 2008 when she got married. “For different reasons, I had to get separated,” she says. “I divorced. There were problems of domestic violence.” Her social worker suggested La Cocina VA. “For me, the program has been significant because it has helped me become an independent woman,” Herrera says. “It’s an excellent program. Lots of women like me don’t have motivation, don’t know where they stand.”

Funegra left a job at the Inter-American Development Bank to start La Cocina VA to support the Latino community at a critical time. If she has one regret, it’s that she can’t help all Latina women in need of direction. Because the organization’s mission is job readiness and job placement, La Cocina VA must check documentation to verify that its students are legally allowed to work.

Because immigrants continue to find themselves in the crosshairs of one of the most volatile and raw political climates in modern history, Funegra encounters distrust among applicants. She says they’re used to being exploited, so they find it hard to believe that the program is completely free thanks to grants and donations. “They ask if we’re going to take money out of their salaries when they find a job,” Funegra says. “I say, ‘No, this is to support your development.’”

Offering bilingual classes helps build trust. “The reason we created this program was because of the language barrier—every other course you’ll find is in English,” Funegra says. “That’s the biggest stopper for immigrants. You have to learn the language in order to get trained, which can take years.”

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Chef instructor Christian Irabien, who cooked locally at Oyamel and Le Diplomate before joining the La Cocina VA staff, is able to teach in both languages because he was born in Mexico and grew up in Texas. “I wanted to help the communities where I came from,” he says. “I’m the son of an immigrant mother who worked three jobs while I was growing up.”

Although graduates receive a culinary certificate from Northern Virginia Community College, La Cocina VA is not culinary school, Irabien says. “During the first three weeks, we’re not in the kitchen yet,” he explains. The students are learning English, professionalism, team-building skills, and the importance of taking pride in their work. It isn’t until they return from the week five stage that they break out the knives and get cooking. Lessons are broken down by ingredients or techniques.

The students prepare 100 to 200 nutritious meals each day, and here’s where the organization hits an altruistic home run: Instead of tossing them, the meals are delivered to community centers in areas where families stretched for time and money can pick them up. The students are learning while simultaneously tackling food access and reducing food waste. 

Irabien has to be a bit scrappy when sourcing food for class. Unlike a restaurant, he doesn’t have the budget to order 40 pounds of prime chicken thighs. Instead, he taps the Capital Area Food Bank for free fruit, vegetables, and dairy, plus other products priced at $1.99 a pound. He gets the rest of his products from local growers like Whitehall Farms in Clifton, Virginia. If members of the farm’s CSA fail to pick up their boxes, the goods go to La Cocina VA.

Even though Irabien is preparing his students for entry-level work, he arms them with more sophisticated lessons too, like the importance of sustainable sourcing, seasonal cooking, and finding ways to use the whole vegetable or whole animal. That’s why he takes them on field trips to the farm. “We have them touch and taste everything,” he says.

Of course, no job is without its frustrations. Each class is different from the last, so Irabien must consistently tweak the curriculum. An advanced group might theorize about how to cajole more flavor out of vegetables, while a more elementary group may stick to the importance of handwashing. 

Then there are the obstacles of being a young and growing organization. “It’s hard if we end up losing a grant for produce right when we have a team that’s super engaged,” Irabien says. “I have to say, ‘Well guys, we’re going to have to open a bunch of vegetable cans because we don’t have the budget for anything but carrots and onions.’” 

Finally, not all students are optimally positioned to learn. “While they’re all here because they want to learn and enter the industry, they don’t come from the most friendly backgrounds,” Irabien says. Some may not have eaten, others might have frustrated husbands who don’t understand why their wives are seeking work outside the home.

“One of the dark sides of Hispanic culture is that it’s very male-oriented,” says Elvis Cordova, La Cocina VA’s interim board chair and a former U.S. Department of Agriculture employee. “The woman stays home.” 

He characterizes the organization’s graduation ceremonies as particularly moving. One year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe handed out the certificates. “You see women who have broken through that particular barrier saying, ‘Here I am. I’m certified, and now I can provide for my family,’” Cordova says. 

He was attracted to the organization because it’s taking unemployed immigrants and making them agents of change in their communities. “To me, they’re the most vulnerable community right now—they’re under attack, seen as criminals,” Cordova says. “But these are hardworking people who want to better their community and add to the economy. How can this be wrong?”

La Cocina VA graduates aren’t the only ones benefitting from the program. So are area restaurants. “It’s a good thing for us as an employer because you cannot find good people anymore on the street,” Hofmann says. “You have to steal them from other hotels and restaurants.”

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Hofmann adds that students come ready to work with English-language abilities, equipment know-how, and, best of all, ServSafe certificates. “They’re certified in food safety, which is awesome because cooks usually don’t get sent to food safety class until they’re a supervisor or sous chef.”

The next chapter of La Cocina VA could position the organization to make an even larger impact on vulnerable communities. Funegra is hopeful she’ll secure a grant from the state of Virginia that would enable the organization to build a new kitchen and food incubator space in the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing’s new development on Columbia Pike in South Arlington. 

That would allow it to expand educational services to veterans, non-Latino immigrants, and refugees, and to give budding food entrepreneurs a place to work—like Mess Hall but smaller. La Cocina VA leadership is optimistic it will attract major funders like Boeing, given the focus on veterans and minority communities. Its fund-raising campaign will begin in the second half of 2017.

La Cocina VA, 1500 N Glebe Road, Arlington; (202) 316-5614; lacocinava.org

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com