Tomorrow, Thurs. Nov. 15, the official launch of local nonprofit Bread + Butter will kick off with a series of fundraising events running through the end of the year. The organization has a two-tiered mission plan: connect (often) underserved high school students with local chefs to expand the former's mind and help the latter address the city's staffing crisis. If this sounds like a too good to be true halcyon hoax, don't worry. The theory has been tested with a year-and-a-half long pilot program, and so far, the results are promising.
The idea for Bread + Butter (B+B) started taking shape years ago, actually. Co-founder Xan McLaughlin, operating partner of places like The Park Cafe, and formerly of Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen, said he was sitting at the bar of Lee Lee's one day, gazing across the street. In front of him was Burke High School, a big empty field, and the Gadsden Green Housing Projects.
McLaughlin says his wheels immediately started turning: he knew that Burke had gotten a $2.5 million culinary facility recently (in 2016) and that the school's status was kind of up in the air. He also knew that a lot of the students lived in Gadsden Green. Seeing this, along with McLaughlin (for personal reasons) having a very strong advocacy for vocational schools, led him to a novel idea. "A lot of these kids might not go to college but if we can get them young enough to go through Burke's two-year culinary program and get them when they're 15, well, they could be making $14 an hour at 18 when they get out of high school. I thought 'why don't we teach at Burke?'"
In 2016, writer Ayinde Moir Waring wrote about the fraught status of the high school for CP in the cover story "Bulldog Pride:" "Just a few years ago, Burke was on the cusp of being taken over by the state for its 'failing grades.' There have been calls to close its doors and reopen Burke as a new school, with a new name and new students who don't resemble those of Burke's illustrious past. Still others have sought to get rid of the school entirely and replace it with some other sort of commercial or residential development."
But the school has stood its ground, and its $2.5 million facility has been put to good use, especially in the past year-and-a-half. "It's a working interview," explains McLaughlin. McLaughlin and co-founder Becky Burke created a B+B curriculum that would line up with Burke's two year program, and for six weeks, a different chef — Kelly Franz, Blair Machado, Kevin Mitchell, Teikel Stafford, and Josh Shea were the pilot participants — would come in and teach a class. The guest chef would demo anything from kitchen safety and kitchen vocabulary to knife skills to how to fillet a fish. There would be the bored kid or the wary student, sure, but there were also plenty of interested, bright young minds excited for the challenge.
"If you just put an ad on Craigslist as a chef, [it's hit or miss]," says McLaughlin. "With this program, you're walking into a class of 15 kids who at least know how to hold a knife."
Franz, Magnolia's executive chef, says: "Ultimately to get students placed in restaurants for even a summer externship would be really helpful for us in the restaurant industry." Franz says she taught basic knife skills (she also leads a knife class at 180 Place) and food identifcation during the pilot program at Burke. "We brought in a bunch of interesting food and had the kids describe the flavor without using words like 'nice' or 'gross.' Especially with young people, you assume you don't like something before you ever taste it. Even the students that were afraid to eat it were listening."
The linchpin of this chef-student interaction is that, says McLaughlin, "the chefs have to commit to hiring one student a year."
The result? "We've placed one-third of our students," says Burke. Not every life was changed, and there's not some wiz kid exec chef taking the helm at McCrady's yet. But there is Xavier. "He was in our first semester, fall 2017," says Burke. "He was 15 and in an ankle bracelet — he was always super excited, the first to volunteer and clean up. You could tell he wanted to make this a career. A few chefs on the spot offered to hire him, but he went to Poogan's when Blair [Machado] was there. Blair saw a lot of potential in him."
McLaughlin acknowledges that the program might be as simple as securing a student an after school or summer job — they don't have to know how to make the perfect roux. "At the beginning of the program I ask 'who likes money?'" says McLaughlin. For angsty teens, dollar signs sometimes speak louder than inspirational posters and tired aphorisms. "We teach soft skills, I encourage them to fill out an application at Park Cafe, just to get that experience," says McLaughlin. "I'm a firm believer in growth. Starting in dish and prep — especially when you're 15 — is the way to go. That's where I started. That's the story I try to teach them: I started here, this is where I went, this is where I am now."
Proving to themselves that this is a program that can really make a difference, the B+B team is ready for next steps. First up, West Ashley High School is on deck to host B+B the first semester of 2019. "They have a really incredible three year culinary program already in place," says Burke. "We're hoping to have high placement rate with those students — they already have that interest." Burke says she's had successful sit downs with West Ashley restaurants Ms. Rose's, Tattooed Moose, Verde, Swig & Swine, and Home Team. Burke says they're also working on arranging field trips for the students, with ventures to The Dewberry — "it's a really inspirational kitchen" — to Brittlebank Park for the Airbnb Experience, Crabbing with Tia.
McLaughlin piggybacks on these future plans, "Burke is where my heart is," he says. "But right now we want to get into as many classrooms as possible. Wando, North Charleston, 180 Place, Turning Leaf, Kids on Point (an after school extracurricular program), Trident Tech. We have a lot of room to grow."
Check out these Bread + Butter fundraising events happening around town Nov. 15 through December:
• Tues. Nov. 27 — Wine and Co. is doing their regular Tuesday wine tasting, starting at 5:30 p.m., and donating all proceeds to B+B.
• Thurs. Nov 29 — Cooper River Brewery is donating $1 of every pint sold that day to B+ B.
• Tues. Dec 4 — The Glass Onion is donating 10 percent of its monthly charity dinner sales that night to B+B.
• Thurs. Dec 13 — The Royal American will donate all holiday party door sales to B+B.
• Thurs. Dec 20 — Stems & Skins is having Xan McLaughlin guest bartend where he'll make his favorite holiday drink, White Russians, and the proceeds will go to B+B.
• From Thurs. Nov. 15 through Sat. Dec. 15 — Husk is donating 5 percent of all pimento cheese sales to B+B and The Park Cafe is donating all ricotta sales to B+B.
• From Thurs. Nov. 15 through Sat. Dec. 15 — Vintage Lounge is donating 15 percent of sales of their Pan con Tomate dish to B+B.