Cooking up a career

Rendezvous Cafe provides on-the-job training and employment for JobTrain grads

A mellow playlist of Erykah Badu, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Jill Scott played softly in the background as a cheery server in a crisp white uniform brought out the daily special: a New York steak chili topped with finely chopped green onions. Patrons in business attire dined around rustic wooden tables decorated with potted succulents.

The atmosphere at Rendezvous Cafe, which opened in the fall at the Sobrato Center for Nonprofits in Redwood Shores, may look and feel like a hip, power-lunch hotspot, but it all started with a mission to give back to the community.

Rendezvous Cafe provides jobs for low-income people seeking a way to rebuild their lives. The cafe is the first restaurant created by Wise SV, a joint social enterprise (defined in a press release as "a sustainable, for-profit business that also addresses social, societal and environmental challenges") established by the nonprofit JobTrain in Menlo Park, which offers free or low-cost vocational training programs, and CALSO, a San Francisco nonprofit that reduces unemployment by providing job opportunities to people facing employment barriers. Wise SV aims to help unemployed and under-served people through on-the-job training in culinary roles.

Rendezvous Cafe was funded with a $600,000 start-up grant from Google.org to help pay for renovations, equipment and start-up costs, and the Sobrato Family Foundation donated the space for the cafe at the Sobrato Center for Nonprofits, according to JobTrain. (The cafe's name was inspired by John Massimo Sobrato's popular prohibition era restaurant John's Rendezvous, which was in operation in San Francisco until 1952, according to the Sobrato Family's website.) Other funding sources include the eBay Foundation and Goodwill San Francisco.

Cafe employees might get their start by enrolling in JobTrain's culinary program, during which they learn fundamentals such as knife skills, food preparation and food safety through hands-on classes. The program also trains students to work in commercial kitchens by focusing on how to prepare for job interviews and how to effectively communicate within a restaurant environment. An on-site organic garden encourages students to incorporate fresh produce into the recipes used within the program.

After completing JobTrain's culinary arts program, the school's career counselor offers select graduates the option to interview for a position at the cafe as a way extend their culinary training before transitioning into outside work. The cafe offers employees competitive wages and benefits, both of which can be rare in culinary industry jobs, said Jennifer Overholt, JobTrain's new initiatives manager. Overholt said that JobTrain students and alumni are also supported by the program's free resources: tax preparation, legal advice, a clothes closet for career outfits, transportation assistance and wellness counseling.

"They're not just learning cooking skills; they're learning soft skills, too," Overholt said. "Communication, how to be successful in a workplace; (the program) doesn't teach people how to cook. It teaches them how to work in a commercial kitchen and all that it entails."

Following a successful grand opening in September, Wise SV is currently in the planning stages to expand the cafe's kitchen space to accommodate catering requests for corporate and private events. The expansion will also create more jobs.

The fast-casual style cafe features breakfast and lunch menus with pastries, yogurt parfaits, organic cereal, egg dishes, salads, hand-tossed personal pizzas, soups and sandwiches served with house-made potato chips or fries. While daily specials have been planned a week in advance in the past, Chef Charles Crossley has led the cafe in a more sustainable direction since joining the staff in December. The specials are now influenced by a "mystery basket approach" of using what is already on hand in the kitchen. That means fresh produce and proteins from the walk-in refrigerator combined with pantry staples -- the same general approach used on the popular Food Network reality game show "Chopped," Crossley said.

San Mateo resident Crossley came from a family of math minds and engineers, but he was not one to follow his family's path. While pondering his next moves after high school, cooking became his de-stressing mechanism -- and eventually his career.

"I wanted to be a baseball player, but I stunk," Crossley said, laughing. "I've always cooked, ever since I was a kid, working with my grandmother in her kitchen. ... One day I thought, 'You know, someone should pay me for this. Why can't I do this for a living?'"

Crossley entered an apprenticeship program with the Starwood Hotel chain, which owns Sheraton, W and Westin, and steadily worked his way up through the culinary hierarchy. After 15 years of managing commercial kitchens as an executive chef and a total of 30 years working in professional kitchens, he said he felt that he needed to do something more meaningful with his career.

"I didn't have anything left to prove to myself, cooking-wise," he said. "I noticed that I was the happiest when I was cooking in the kitchen with the staff, teaching them new things and helping them with their careers."

With the help of a recruiter, Crossley was introduced to the JobTrain program and became the cafe's chef and mentor to the cafe's three current employees, who are all JobTrain culinary graduates.

One of them is prep cook Imani Smothers, who enjoyed selling hot plates of food to friends around her East Palo Alto neighborhood before she joined the culinary program at JobTrain. She said she came to the cafe to continue to build on what she learned at JobTrain.

Under Crossley's direction, Smothers said she has been developing a taste for global cuisine by testing new recipes. Stir-fries, jambalaya and crab boils are among her go-to foods, but arroz caldo, a Filipino rice porridge, has become Smothers' favorite daily special. Her goal, she said, is to become a chef or caterer, with a primary focus on preparing American soul food.

After completing JobTrain's culinary program, San Jose resident Say Miranda landed a job with LSG Sky Chefs in Burlingame, where she helped prepare food served by airlines. When she felt that she needed more one-on-one training, she decided to join the cooking crew at Rendezvous Cafe as a prep cook.

Miranda said that Crossley has been helping her perfect her execution of classic sauces, or "mother sauces," in classic French cuisine: béchamel, espagnole, hollandaise, tomato and velouté. Each sauce, she said, serves as a flavor base with endless possibilities. In her spare time, she likes to combine multiple ethnic recipes to achieve a unique taste. Her most recent revelation was the pairing of burritos and quesadillas with the spicy gusto of kimchi, a fermented cabbage condiment traditionally served with Korean cuisine.

"Right now, my future goal would be to open my own restaurant." Miranda said. "I would probably stay within the (genre) of Korean-American fusion. I've already learned new things, so it can only get better from here."

Rendezvous Cafe

350 Twin Dolphin Drive, Redwood City



Hours: Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Chrissi Angeles is an editorial intern at the Palo Alto Weekly.

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