When Natalie Young invited students from Core Academy to the Springs Preserve on a Sunday afternoon in early April, the high school kids didn’t know what to expect. But they’d met the Downtown-based chef and entrepreneur before. The Academy is dedicated to helping under-served students “reach their full potential and pursue individual success,” and Young had spoken to them about her life experiences and the successful career she’s achieved without attending college.
After greeting Young and enjoying some snacks, the group of several dozen headed into the Preserve’s theater for a screening of Jon Favreau’s Chef—a film about a burned-out chef who rediscovers his passion for cooking with his son on a food truck. Young asked them to watch it carefully, “And then, after the movie, think about what you want to do with your lives.” Only after the screening did she offer them an opportunity that could change some of their lives: internships at her Fremont Street chicken and Chinese restaurant, Chow.
The chef, who has experienced plenty of personal and professional ups and downs before opening the Downtown breakfast and lunch spot Eat, says this has been a long time coming. “Before I opened Eat,” she says, “I thought, ‘I love kids and dogs. If I ever have the opportunity, that’s my way of giving back to the community.’ I didn’t know Eat was gonna go gangbusters. So [then] I built Chow. And one day I just woke up and went, ‘Oh, kids! It’s supposed to be about the kids.’”
As they filed out of the theater, several young people stopped to tell Young how excited they were about the program. One young man, Christian, hugged her and told her how much he loved cooking at home, later confessing that a recent attempt at pancakes left him with flapjacks that were “both raw and burned.” Outside, Young shared boxed lunches and invited them all to experience Chow as guests at a private dinner. But she also warned them the internship wouldn’t be all fun and games.
Students who wanted in on the program would have to write an essay explaining why. They’d then have to be interviewed by Young. Those who passed (all 15 applicants did) will put in their first shift on May 10, when they’ll take a class that tackles subjects such as filling out job applications, what to wear to a job interview, what questions are appropriate to ask during an interview, and what questions employers are allowed to ask.
About a week later, they’ll hit the restaurant floor. But it’ll be some time before they’re cooking for Chow customers. Their first jobs will involve hostessing, busing and serving. If they stick with it, they’ll eventually learn every position in the restaurant. Following a probationary period, the interns may even start taking home a paycheck for their shifts. But Young believes the experience can carry them through a lifetime, no matter what paths they choose for themselves.
“I don’t know if one of them is gonna be the next president,” she says. “But what I can tell you is, wherever they are in life, if they decide they need to do something while they try to get somewhere else, this is a great stepping stone to get there. And it’s also a fantastic career if it’s what they choose to stay with.”
That’s a lesson she can vouch for firsthand. “No matter what happened to me in life—good times, bad times, when I was kind of being a knucklehead out there—I always had a job, as long as I showed up and did my best. The culinary arts and hospitality industry kind of lets you be a free spirit while you’re finding your way.”
Skimming the student essays, it’s immediately obvious how seriously they are taking this opportunity.
“I don’t want this internship because of the money,” writes one. “I mean, I couldn’t care less about the money. I want this internship because of the experience. It’s also what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
And, based on another essay, these kids don’t seem afraid of hard work. “If I get picked for the paid internship,” she writes, “I will try my hardest to be one of the best. I will admit it will be some type of challenge for me. But I will try my hardest to get the things right, and try hard to not mess up. I know I will get yelled at. I know I will fail. And I know I will try to give up. But I will not give up. I will try my hardest. Failure is not an option for me. Success is my destiny no matter what happens.”
Guests at Chow may soon find themselves being served by some of the most motivated workers in the local restaurant business. If Young’s interns make a few mistakes along the way, however, cut them a little slack. You’ll be helping to prepare the next generation of chefs and restaurateurs, and hopefully changing some lives.