Shin took out the cookie dough. Asia fried the onion. Christopher fried the tortilla chips. Richard cooked pinto beans.
Ark was doing Orange County Kitchen Hop in Los Angeles and Downey.
For the past two weeks, the nonprofit’s culinary students — seven men ages 22 to 41, decked out in black chef’s coats with metal tags that read their first names and “Future Chef” — have What was breakfast and lunch for human resources? It was the last day of the conference, and lunch would be a feast for 50 chicken tangs, cochinita pebbles and bean and potato tacos.
All students are on the autism spectrum. Christopher largely kept to himself. Richard monitored the Pinto Beans with a timer he painstakingly resets every time he leaves. Shawn mashed the guacamole while an arch staff held the bowl. Cristian, the most talkative of the group, needed to be soothed by Arc’s executive chef Beau Lazo Gonzalez to focus on his job.
Otherwise, they were like any other line chef in any restaurant kitchen – except they weren’t allowed to handle knives.
“I love being able to show their families that they’re capable of handling large projects like the one we’re doing now,” said sous chef Virginia Reynosa, 37, who has worked with Ark since 2013. “They’re surprised. What about them?” [autistic family members] can.”
“I’m tough on them because, I tell them, ‘I want you to be ready,’ and they take it,” said Lazo Gonzalez, 53. Her son Joseph is on the autism spectrum and was helping her that day. . Normally, he attends classes at Cerritos College, where he is majoring in music.
Gas stoves roar. The bells rose. Industrial size mixers cleaned. People shouted the restaurant lingo – “Back!” “Corner!” “Coming, Hot!” – as Maroon 5 and Selena played loudly from the Pandora station.
Lazo-Gonzalez walked around to check on everyone’s progress. Sometimes, she would jump in to demonstrate techniques: use regular salt instead of kosher salt on cookie dough; Knead the pork for the cochinita pebbles so that it soaks up the lemon marinade better. To cook rice the best way—the Filipino way, that is—fill the rice cooker with water just below the other nose of your middle finger.
Mostly, he offered words of encouragement that included “respect” and “love.”
“All week, you were preparing for this,” he told his staff before taking a short break. And he had some news: The conference wanted to add to its order.
“It’s kind of late, but we’ll make it work,” he said. Then he smiled. “Who needs coffee like me?”
Everyone raised their hands and expressed happiness.
Since 1956, the Ark has provided services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including art classes, field trips and job training, from a small complex of buildings in an industrial section of Downey. Six years ago, the nonprofit launched a free culinary arts program that prepares clients to work in the restaurant industry as cooks and dishwashers.
This summer, Arch embarked on an ambitious project to provide real-world experience, renovating a banquet hall to be rented out with catering provided by students. The two-week conference was their first major test.
The previous administration upgraded Ark’s kitchen to an industrial-sized space, but CEO Emilio Sosa — who also chairs the Los Nitos School District Board of Trustees — felt participants weren’t getting the most out of it. .
“The banquet hall looks like it’s from the 1980s,” Sosa said in an interview from his office. “They were just making sandwiches and salads for our other participants. If our goal is to give them a real-life experience, we need to turn the kitchen into a place to do that.
Sosa’s idea was also born out of necessity. In the fall of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that prohibited workers with disabilities from being paid less than the minimum wage, which was allowed under a 1938 federal law intended to It was to make the job easier. Proponents of the bill argued that workers with disabilities could be exploited.
Many of Arc’s clients who held jobs soon lost them, as businesses stopped paying the minimum wage. Due to rising labor costs, Arc’s onsite packing warehouse, which housed former clients, had to close. It then relaunched as a thrift store with significantly reduced staff before shuttering due to lack of sales.
“Employers don’t want to jump for our participants — catering is a way to show them,” Sosa said.
“They keep telling me they stop working,” Lazo Gonzalez said. Under it, everyone trains seven hours a day, five days a week, with hands-on workshops and lectures. They still make lunch every day for other Ark participants but up their game 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, that would be my first rental,” said Lazo Gonzalez, a veteran of high-end restaurant chains like Border Grill and Sleepfish. “A lot of people in restaurants start out thinking they’re a rock star. Here, everyone is grateful for the opportunity.
She tries to arrange a field trip but gets few responses from restaurants and grocery stores.
“I know they’re busy,” Lazo-Gonzalez said with a disappointed look on her face, “but we want people to see what’s out there.”
Before lunch, I asked some of Arc’s aspiring chefs how they felt.
“It helps me to better my future and fulfill my dreams,” said Asia, who started a few months ago. (Ark does not disclose clients’ last names, citing privacy concerns.)
“I’m learning a lot,” Christopher said.
Richard worked in a warehouse for a while but didn’t like it “because they weren’t nice.” She and Sean were moonlighting by day, and while they don’t want to work in the restaurant industry, “I like to work and want to work.”
“It’s fun, what we do,” Christian said. He is about to exit the program after four years to enter Arc’s career development track and hopes to be the first of his peers to land a job in the culinary world. “I’m getting skills and friends.
“Okay,” he cracked again, “let me get my groove back!”
By the time the conference was ready for lunch, the energy in the kitchen had risen. Some of the guys went out to serve on the buffet line, while the rest cleaned up what was left—not much, since everyone cleaned up their work stations before moving on to other tasks.
Near the center of the banquet hall, the conference organizers praised their experience.
“The quality of the food and the professionalism was amazing,” said Elsa Leal of Monrovia. “I think I want to have my daughter’s quinceañera here.”
“It’s a great way for them to show off what they do,” added Whittier resident Laura Ramirez.
“A lot of times, you go to a conference somewhere, and they don’t have everything,” Yvette Martin said. “Here, it’s all good.”
As the conference participants ate, the Arc Team retired to a private room so that Lazo González and Reynosa could serve them lunch. Someone had written “Good Luck” on the whiteboard. I joined them for a delicious meal with a bonus: grilled chile güeritos.
The next day, they’ll enjoy a day off with pizza and karaoke. Soon after, they’ll begin planning a Harry Potter-themed dinner for October that will be their first foray into serving the general public, which Lazo-Gonzalez wants to do once a month. Right now, they chatted like any other break room.
Christian asks Joseph about a Blink 182 concert he attended. He turned the talk to his favorite bassists. Asia showed me YouTube videos. Richard, Shawn, and Christopher ate in silence, until someone began to wonder aloud what Lazo Gonzalez should teach them to make next.
Ricardo, who had been largely silent that morning, suggested enchiladas. Shin countered with kimchi rice.
“Pasta carbonara,” Asia replied.
“A full line!” Cristian blurted out, which drew an inspired laugh from Lazo-Gonzalez.
“You all have to be here at five in the morning for this! Are you all ready?”