Caridad Johnson (known as Cari) admits that she’s terrified of bugs and had a lot of trouble when a caterpillar turned up in some kale she was cleaning. But at 18, she’s soaking up culinary skills, along with an appreciation for new foods and experiences, which sometimes means coping with the occasional insect. She’s also trying plenty of unfamiliar tastes, like duck confit and falafel.
“You have to be open to it,” says the Tender Greens intern, who is part of the restaurant’s paid training program for youth transitioning out of foster care. “I’ve been cooking since I was little,” Johnson adds, explaining that she and her brother learned to prepare meals while living with an aunt who didn’t like to cook. Born in Berkeley, Johnson first entered foster care at age four and says she’s had to “grow up faster” because of it. When I met her at the Walnut Creek Tender Greens, she was halfway through the restaurant’s six-month internship and showing every sign of becoming its first East Bay graduate and a full-time restaurant employee.
The internship, called the Sustainable Life Project (SLP), got its start in Venice, California, where Tender Greens co-founder Erik Oberholtzer wanted to reach out to local homeless youth. Oberholtzer hired some of these youth in several of his Southern California Tender Greens sites, only to discover that they needed additional help to hold down a job. He started the SLP in 2012 to offer paid, supportive job training plus the promise of employment for emancipated foster youth ages 18 to 24. “The goal is to create a stepping stone from foster care to financial independence,” says Sean Eastwood, executive chef of the Walnut Creek restaurant.
Johnson is the third intern at the Walnut Creek location; the two who came before her didn’t make it through the program. The transition out of foster care is notoriously difficult, as immediate needs (for housing, food, and sometimes childcare) can easily overshadow work commitments.
Tender Greens has increased the odds of success by building partnerships with local foster youth organizations. The Walnut Creek staff collaborate with GROW (Gaining Resources & Opportunities for Work) Oakland, which has its own culinary training program that prepares students like Johnson for the Tender Greens internship.
Sarah Germany runs the GROW kitchen in East Oakland with tough love. “Our kids need a lot of focus on learning how to work,” says Germany. “Showing up, coming on time, leaving personal problems at the door, and being accountable. If you haven’t had the experience of seeing someone get up every day and get to work, you have no benchmark.” If her students undercook the chicken, Germany dishes out blunt criticism, and she wields a roll of packing tape to deal with sagging jeans. The GROW program includes several days in the Tender Greens kitchen to give potential interns and Tender Greens staff a chance to meet and see if a match might work.
Once an intern comes to Tender Greens, Chef Eastwood and Sous Chef Som Saengsourith continue to collaborate with staff at GROW, and they treat interns more like students than employees. “We’ll help you before you fall,” says Saengsourith, a compassionate mentor who even stays in touch with the interns who haven’t made it through the program. “My phone is never turned off,” she says; Johnson admits to having called her at 2:30am. Johnson also says she’s working with Eastwood on “being humble”—holding her tongue and learning to respond with “Yes, Chef.” She’s making progress: “I was in an argument and I stopped,” she says. “That’s a huge one for me.”
Rising from the Dish Pit
Each intern starts in the dish pit, where fledgling chefs learn basic work skills like showing up on time on their scheduled days. Interns spend two full days each week in the restaurant, advancing from dish duty to classes in knife skills, food prep, pasta making, canning, curing, and more. In the Tender Greens kitchen, I watch Johnson skillfully roll spinach-filled strips of filo dough into spanakopita, a task she’s had to practice over and over to master. Along with the hands-on kitchen training, interns participate in field trips, where they get to meet farmers and food producers at places like the California Olive Ranch in Chico, Petaluma’s Achadinha Cheese Company, and Scarborough Farms in Oxnard.
“We’re teaching the love and passion we have for food; every day we get a chance to expose them to something different,” says Chef Eastwood. To date, 20 So-Cal interns have completed the program, with about half staying on at Tender Greens and some moving into other food service jobs. Tender Greens boasts 14 restaurants in the southern part of the state, plus their Walnut Creek site and two San Francisco eateries. The menu, based on the philosophy “slow food done fast,” is rooted in the chefs’ relationships with local farmers, ranchers, and artisan food producers.
What’s next for Johnson? At 18, rather than opting for full independence, she’s taking advantage of state legislation passed in 2012 that allows youth to move into a less-restrictive type of foster care that includes housing and case management. And she’s poised to graduate from the internship and continue to chop, dice, and mix as a Tender Greens line cook. Her pride is evident as she insists on sending me home with a slice of what she calls “heaven on earth,” their olive oil citrus cake. “It’s fresh food; it’s real,” she says of the restaurant’s offerings. “We take our time and put care into how we’re making it.” The same could certainly be said of the way Tender Greens is nurturing Johnson and other promising young chefs.