How Four Cooks Use Food to Reach Bigger Goals

In the community dining room at Part of the Solution, a Bronx nonprofit, Edwin Contreras spooned corn onto a plate and talked about his dream of opening a restaurant.

Mr. Contreras, 24, worked his way up from pantry assistant to part-time cook at the organization, known as POTS. Like many other young people in the food service industry, he said he wanted to open a restaurant — in his case, in Buffalo.

“I give myself five years,” he said, placing two chicken hot dogs on a plate. Mr. Contreras began working at POTS eight years ago after participating in the New York City Department of Education’s Learning to Work program, which offers students academic support to help them graduate from high school.

Edwin Contreras, 24, a part-time cook at Part of the Solution, prepared the day's meals in the Bronx. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute
Ana Reyes, a volunteer kitchen assistant, prepares hors d'oeuvres at the James Beard House. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute


Minutes before dinner at the James Beard House, Thomas Stewart, an executive chef from Miami, directed his team to the hors d'oeuvres on May 25. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute

His guests, who may not otherwise have had access to a hot meal, lined up in the hallway outside the dining room and waited to be called in for lunch. “I feel good about feeding people and knowing that they go about their day with a full meal,” Mr. Contreras said.

Ana Reyes, 25, received a degree from Lehman College in speech pathology and recently enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education, hoping to combine travel and cooking into a career. Ms. Reyes did not have an extensive culinary background and had never worked in a commercial kitchen until she volunteered as a kitchen assistant at the James Beard Foundation.

Each month, the foundation invites established chefs to host a dinner at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. It allows one student to assist in preparing and plating the food. Ms. Reyes was the only student available when a Beard Foundation representative called her school. Thomas Stewart, a Miami-based executive chef and host of the dinner, and his staff trained her for his “Bubbles at the Beach” dinner at the house. Ms. Reyes prepared hors d’oeuvres and helped arrange food on plates for 62 guests.

During the six-course Italian dinner, Ms. Reyes said she saw firsthand how a kitchen operates. “It’s amazing,” she said at the dinner. “The people are great and helpful. This business is hard and rough, but the greatest thing of the culinary world is that it will never be boring.”

After completing the institute, Ms. Reyes said, she wants to join apprenticeships in France, Italy and Spain. “I hope to work with the best in the industry and learn as much as I can,” she said.

Waiting for food outside El Blablaso. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute

Inside a food truck rimmed with neon lights, Cristal Nuñez, 21, flipped a beef patty on a flat-top grill in Harlem. Ms. Nuñez made the Dominican version of a hamburger by adding two handfuls of cabbage, homemade French-style dressing and chimichurri sauce.

She works alongside her mother and grandfather at the food truck, which is named El Blablaso, Dominican slang for a man who talks too much. She has been working in the kitchen for a few months but hopes to become a dentist.

Maribel Marques began cooking authentic Mexican cuisine two years ago because she had been unable to find work. Ms. Marques stations her small metal food cart, outfitted with two portable butane countertop ranges and two umbrellas, on a street corner in Harlem. Diners gathered around the cart to try talautas, dobladas and chile rellenos topped with lettuce, shredded cheese, tomato, cilantro and a choice of salsa.

During the Memorial Day weekend, Maribel Marques, 41, served chiles rellenos, flautas and dobladas from her food cart on the corner of 107th Street and Third Avenue in Harlem. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute
Maria Ramirez, a volunteer server at Part of the Solution, carried food to hungry customers in the Bronx. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute
Mirela Mujovic leaves the kitchen during the "Bubbles at the Beach" dinner at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute
Marylina Henerdez, 32, ate the Dominican version of a hamburger, with Chimichurri sauce, cabbage and French-style dressing from the El Blablaso food truck. Alyssa Pointer / NYT Institute


The food is not the only connection Ms. Marques has to south of the border. She sends most of her earnings to her five children living in Puebla, Mexico.

No matter what paths they take, the cooks allow food to guide them toward a common goal: making their dreams a reality.