Culinary school wasn’t in the cards. They became cooks anyway.

photos by Sandy Neal and Dina Altieri


Sandy Neal

Sandy Neal always had a passion for life.

Traveling abroad in Spain and France, he fell in love with lively open-air markets spilling over with meats and fish, fruits and vegetables, wine, cheese and pastries. He marveled at the traditions of European families and friends. For a decade he designed costumes for the opera and created custom couture pieces for celebrities and socialites.

Sherri Riley’s story was a little different. She worked front-of-house in restaurants for years, in her spare time dreaming of owning her own bakery and café. Eventually she took a job working in insurance sales outside of Washington, D.C. to support herself and her daughter.

But in 2017, their paths began to converge. Both Neal and Riley’s mothers had fallen ill and each went home to become caregivers.

“I found myself back in Chicago because my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how long I was going to be here,” Riley recalls. “I didn’t have income coming in and I was really at a crossroads. I was looking online and saw this posting for a culinary program called Silver Fork.”

Neal headed home to Chicago, too. “For three years I was my mother’s primary caregiver. During that time my responsibilities included preparing her meals and making sure she ate,” he says. “After mom passed I struggled with debilitating depression. I simply had lost all motivation to get up and live life. My passion for art and design was gone. … I was unable to put my professional life back together. I knew I needed to fix things so I went to the Center on Halsted looking for some kind of help, so I took a tour of the facility and discovered Silver Fork.”

Center on Halsted is a community center in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood focused on serving the local LGBTQ community as well as anyone who comes to them looking for help. It offers support groups, art galleries, recreational activities and job readiness programs.

The center’s Silver Fork program is a vocational training program for LGBTQ and allied adults who are unemployed or underemployed.

“[It’s a] free nine-week culinary program,” says Nicole Pederson, Center on Halsted’s director of culinary arts. “The focus is on culinary job readiness, knife skills and recipe reading and fundamentals of moving through the kitchen.”

Participants receive hands-on training in the culinary arts from local chefs. The program includes several days of experiential learning modules including à la carte and catering functions to give participants customer-facing experiences. Field trips to local industry partner organizations and stages are pivotal components of the program, including field trips to local trade shows and wine-tasting and cheese-making workshops.

Silver Fork includes both culinary and baking instruction, as well as front of house service training and two licensure courses. Participants currently have the opportunity to earn Chicago Department of Public Health Certified Foodservice Manager and Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training (BASSET) certifications. The 2017 cohort that Riley and Neal were a part of also included a pilot program in which a few candidates would be chosen to receive extra instruction and take the tests to receive the ACF’s new Certified Fundamentals Cook® (CFC) certification. 

“Not everybody is suited for the same path.”

Chef Dina Altieri
Chef Dina Altieri by Waldemar Reichert

“When I heard about the certification, I just jumped on it,” says Chef Dina Altieri, CEC, CCE, who taught Neal and Riley’s Silver Fork class. “It was so important to me.”

Chef Altieri has been teaching in the field of culinary arts and hospitality for more than two decades. She left her job at a college behind to take the job at the Center on Halsted, hoping to affect change — change in peoples’ lives, and change in the conversation around what the path to a career in food service looks like.

When many imagine a culinary student, she says, they imagine an 18-year-old high school student who’s involved with C-CAP or ProStart to get scholarships for culinary school.

“That’s just not the story for a lot of people,” she says. “What about the person who wants to get a little bit of training and then get out there and work in a commissary kitchen or an institutional kitchen? There are millions of employees. Not everybody is suited for the same path.”

The CFC certification can help forge that path for those who don’t look like the traditional culinary student. It requires only a high school diploma, GED or 75 Continuing Education Hours; two 30-hour courses, one in Nutrition and one in Food Safety and Sanitation; and a passing grade on the written and practical exams. No work experience is necessary, and the 30-hour courses can be done anywhere: online, at a nearby college or within a job readiness program like Silver Fork.

“Training programs like these, they’re change agents. The whole point is to instill some change in our clients. They might have fallen on rough times or have barriers to employment, or both,” Altieri says. “We need to offer accessible touch points for everyone who wants to enter food service, not just people who can devote years of education to it.”

“The only grocery store in her neighborhood was a liquor store.”

Sherri Riley in class at Silver Fork

Chef Altieri and her coworker, Chef Sean Bush (“We were like Batman and Robin,” she says), hand-picked the pilot group from the 12 or so students who were about to start the Silver Fork program.

“I wanted to see how they did on a written quiz. I know it’s a part of the certification, so I wanted to make sure they could read culinary questions and answer appropriately,” Altieri says. “But I also went on heart. Who are the people in the class that have the grit and the resistance and the heart to have me push them, coach them, and frankly give them extra work?”

Altieri and Bush chose four students who they thought could make it through the more rigorous curriculum. This being a free program at a community center, they didn’t have a lot of resources to help prepare Riley, Neal and their classmates for the written and practical exams that were facing them in only a few weeks’ time.

“I brought in my culinary books, the book we use for Knowledge Bowl … I gave another one CIA’s The Professional Chef, I gave them a great ACF book on culinary fundamentals and asked them all to study,” she recalls.

That “heart” that Altieri selected for proved to be essential. The students worked full-time to make sure they aced their tests.

“We were there from nine to five every day, five days a week. We went over the culinary basics, standard recipes, mother sauces, knife skills, sanitation,” Riley says. “The chefs were wonderful. The program was very well laid out. Everything was phenomenal.”

Riley (left) and Altieri

At 54, Riley wasn’t a traditional culinary student. “Not exactly the best age to be going into such a demanding job,” she laughs. But she drew inspiration from her classmates.

“I met these kids. They were in their 20s or teens, and the amazing thing about them is that you often hear in the news that you don’t really expect them to show up at these programs. They would leave two hours in advance to come. … It just blew my mind that we just don’t give them enough credit for finding their way.”

Not only did her young classmates show up, they proved that they were capable and ready to meet any challenge that came their way.

“[In Chicago], we have issues in urban areas where there are food deserts. I saw it firsthand,” Riley recalls. “This young lady had never seen celery. She didn’t know what it was. She would ask me. I said, ‘This is spinach, this is parsley.’ And one day I said, you’ve never had fresh vegetables? The only grocery store in her neighborhood was a liquor store.”

“The fact that this young lady traveled two hours [every day] to come to a program to learn something new was amazing. She practically raised herself. Never been part of the system. Mother was drug addicted. She finished high school, and she came to the program. It changed me.”

In fact, her classmates’ experiences so affected Riley that that faraway dream of owning her own bakery became something bigger. “I saw that I could really make a difference by creating a café and using it as a training ground for people in the community,” she says. “I could maybe make a place for prison workers, children… they could have a place that they could start, regain or reclaim.”

“My biggest source of pride”

Sandy Neal at Center on Halsted
Sandy Neal at Center on Halsted

At the end of nine weeks, three of the four students in Altieri’s pilot program passed their exams and became CFCs. The final student had a family emergency on test day, “but he would have made it,” Altieri says.

“[We did it in] nine weeks at Center on Halsted, and I think that’s pretty impressive,” Altieri continues. “They were high passes, 80s and above. They did great. [It proves] you don’t necessarily need a year of high school-level vocational training or a year of culinary school to pass that exam.”

Neal now works as a server assistant for Free Rein, a restaurant in the St. Jane Hotel in Chicago.

“I gained so much from the Silver Fork program. All of the basic practical skills and vocabulary to function in a professional kitchen, but more than that, there were life lessons that Chef Altieri infused into the curriculum,” he says. “Things like the importance of teamwork to get the job done, to always strive for excellence and take pride in a job well done, order, cleanliness and organization, respect for self and for others, and to always reach beyond our preconceived ideas of what is possible, for something greater. Some of it seems obvious, but I desperately needed to be reminded.”

“Of course there were also the certifications, not just Food Handler but Food Manager and BASSET, both necessary to gain employment in the food service industry,” he continues. “My greatest source of pride regarding certifications, however, is my American Culinary Federation Fundamentals Cook Certification.”

Sherri Riley at Center on Halsted
Sherri Riley at Center on Halsted

Riley’s dream of a bakery is on hold while she’s still taking care of her mother. “It’s going slow. I’m still seeking more training,” she says. “I’m working with Boka Restaurant Group on the catering side, trying to learn as much as I can, be a sponge in my old age.”

“It was a very proud moment of achievement, getting the certification,” Riley continues. “Now I’m trying to make it all come together.”

“Through food, and with the help of Silver Fork and Chef Altieri,” Neal says, “I rediscovered my creativity process, my passion, and found an entirely new career path.”