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YouthLink’s Chef Provides Teens with Home Work

Chef Carl Hoke’s 26-year tenure at the nonprofit has helped train workers for foodservice businesses in the Twin Cities.

At 15 Carl Hoke was rinsing bits of congealed food off a stack of dishes as he watched the chef sit down to eat a steak. He remembers asking with a bit of chip on his shoulder: “I said, ‘how do I get a steak’ and he said, ‘you become a chef and you’ll never be hungry.” 

Hoke took that advice to heart. He signed up for Job Corp training and later secured a job in a fancy French restaurant, where he learned to make quiche, fondue and soups from scratch. “I didn’t want to cook as much as I wanted to eat,” he says with an infectious grin.

Ending up in a French restaurant wasn’t the norm for kids who grew up in the St. Louis projects, which 50 years ago, Hoke says were “the worst projects ever.” He was never pulled into the violence or gang activity, he says, because “I’m a leader. I was a stubborn kid who never did anything I didn’t want to do.”

Over the years he’s cooked for several hotels—“They loved that I knew what to do with leftovers,” he says—and on a cruise ship out of San Diego. On the surface, the cruise ship job appears to be the perfect gig, but there were two problems: “My children were in the Twin Cities and I don’t like the ocean,” he says.

He moved to the Twin Cities to be close to his children and went through a number of kitchens—cooking at Embers and the Hyatt Regency—before he decided to check out working for a nonprofit. People Serving People was his first foray into cooking with a mission. 

He was recruited away from one nonprofit for another. 

For the past 26 years, Hoke, 57, has been the chef at YouthLink, a nonprofit in downtown Minneapolis that connects homeless teens to resources and support. That support, according to its website, consists of everything “from basic needs like a hot shower or a warm meal, assistance with employment or educational goals, accessing mental and physical health resources, or finding supportive housing, we can help young people at all stages of their journey.”

Hoke heads up the kitchen, which provides a hot lunch and trains youth in kitchen skills. In 2017, the organization supported 125 youth kitchen interns, 30 of whom went on to full-time restaurant work. When he started, the kitchen was a hotplate and one oven. Today, it’s a fully functioning industrial kitchen.

“All my cooking was from cookbooks,” he says about past jobs, “I came here and it’s guesstimation.” Knowing what to do with leftovers, the skill that his previous employer admired, is even more important at YouthLink, because his food supplies are sometimes akin to the mystery baskets contestants on Food Network culinary shows are required to turn into gourmet meals. 

Everything coming out of the YouthLink kitchen is made from scratch. Hoke designs his menus around what Sysco has donated to the food bank, along with items purchased at Sam’s Club, as well as other sources. “I have to stay in budget, utilizing what I have,” he says. 

He calls one of his economical dishes St. Louis Slop Pot, a stew of beets, kale, cabbage, smoked turkey, rutabagas and spicy red broth that can be sopped up with corn bread. “The kids just love it,” he says. 

Because their clients most likely will rely on food from food shelves when they find housing, Hoke teaches a class on how to make meals from “stuff from the food bank.” 

As he talks, Hoke lounges in one of the rust orange chairs in the YouthLink office, clearly enjoying a few minutes out of the kitchen to talk about himself and his job. As his coworkers walk through the area he calls out to them and introduces them to his guest as if he’s the mayor of this small community. At first startled, they laugh and play along, shaking their heads. 

At YouthLink, homeless teens can learn cooking skills, but also accountability and how to take charge of their lives.

Hoke is someone former clients remember, says Danae Hudson, YouthLink’s communication manager. In a profile in one of the newsletters, Hoke cooking in the kitchen is mentioned by a past homeless teen as something that helped the YouthLink facility feel homey. And if his picture shows up on the nonprofit’s Facebook page, former clients always post a positive comment about him, she says.

But get him in the kitchen and he’s all business.

“I don’t play,” he says sternly. “I teach them so they’re employable.”

It’s all about accountability and respect. “I teach kids to fish,” he says, referring to the old adage about stopping the cycle of poverty, not just by giving a man a fish to eat, but by teaching him how to fish so he can cure his own hunger. 

Ironically, YouthLink also has a fishing club there where Hoke actually can teach kids to fish, one of his hobbies.

While he doesn’t turn anyone away who wants to learn kitchen skills, they have to come to him with respect. They can’t just come up and say, “I want a job.” Just like real life, he sets up a date and time for the youth—clients range in age from 16 to 24—to come in for a job interview. And if he says they need to be there at 10 a.m., that means 10 a.m., not 10:05. If they show up late, even if they have a good excuse, he makes them set up another appointment and come back.  “I’m no game,” he says. 

The idea, he explains, is that they need to learn that they have to play by the rules. They’re learning to cook, sure, but he’s also mentoring them. “I tell them, ‘we’re not friends,’” he says. But he does spend a lot of time listening to them. “The stories I hear,” he says, shaking his head sadly.

To get to cook, the youth have to master the dishwashing side. “The dish side is the most important, because of sanitation,” he says, and while some enjoy the solitude of dish washing, most see it as a setback. Sometimes, because it’s new territory,  teens sabotage themselves after they’ve experienced some success, he says. If that happens in his kitchen, they return to the dishwashing station. 

From dishes, they go to salads and then to the kitchen, where they learn knife skills, along with how to stretch ingredients. On the day I visited they were preparing baked chicken. After one of the workers washed and dried the chicken breasts, they began seasoning them. Spices cascaded down on the chicken, turning the yellowish skin to paprika red. The youth began turning the mass of chicken with gloved hands to distribute the spices, as Hoke looked on, and I couldn’t help noting that if they ever make a movie of Hoke’s life, Denzel Washington could play him. 

Lunch is more like a dinner, covering all the food groups in a hearty way, Hoke says, because sometimes it’s the only meal the youth will have that day. And while he doesn’t tolerate lateness to a kitchen shift, he always holds back a pan for anyone who comes late to the table. They prepare for 80 each day because “25 kids can eat like 50,” he points out. 

Working at the French restaurant as a teen taught him the value of sharing recipes. “As a teen I wanted to make the soups and the chef wouldn’t share her recipes,” he says, adding that she would go so far as to turn her back on him to block his view of what she was doing. “I share all my recipes,” he says. 

When he took the job, he had never heard of homeless teens. As a father, he says, the idea is unsettling, and he wanted to do something. “This is a blissful job,” he says. “I’m doing my part.”

He proudly ticks off a list of people who worked in the kitchen who have gone on to have jobs in kitchens in the Twin Cities. “I love working with the hard ones and seeing them turn around,” he says. It’s more than a job for him, and definitely more than a job for his kitchen assistants. 

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