The Recorder – $300K grant to fund culinary training program spearheaded by Stone Soup Cafe

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GREENFIELD — A dream conceived nearly a decade ago among board members of Stone Soup Cafe, the pay-what-you-can meal program on Main Street, is finally coming to fruition with help from grant funding.

The Stone Soup Culinary Institute, the pilot program that will be funded through the Massachusetts’ Community Empowerment and Reinvestment Grant Program, plans to welcome its first cohort of students in May, according to Kirsten Levitt, executive director and chef at Stone Soup Cafe, which operates out of the All Souls Church. In the 12-week program, students will receive training and practice in the fundamentals of cooking, along with safe handling and serving of food and beverages.

“We’ve been dreaming about it for all this time,” Levitt said, recalling early conversations with Stone Soup Cafe’s board of directors. “Last year, we were able to visit a similar program that operates in Holyoke, called FoodWorks. We realized we could at least offer a line cook program in our current location because of that meeting.”

With the $300,000 grant, Levitt has been able to hire two chef instructors — both of whom volunteer at Stone Soup Cafe for its weekly meal — and Chef Warren Leigh, chair of the culinary arts program at Holyoke Community College, as a consultant. The grant also allows the training program to be free for the first cohort of six to eight students.

“I’m excited to help people learn and find their place in the culinary industry,” Chef Michael Phillips, one of the two instructors, said in a press release. “There are so many great opportunities right now and culinary skills are in very high demand across the country. This program is about training specifically for these positions and then working to match graduates with local opportunities.”

Phillips and his co-instructor, Chef Brandon Shantie, both have years of experience volunteering at Stone Soup Cafe, Levitt explained.

“What really excites me,” Shantie said, “is that teaching gives me the opportunity to share the wealth of experience I have gained from working in the culinary field for over half my life.”

The training program will involve four days each of week of in-person classes at Stone Soup Cafe, followed by a fifth day of practicum experience interning at Stone Soup Cafe or a local restaurant.

By the end of the program, students will have received a food handlers license and a ServSafe certificate, as well as job skills, industry connections and references for securing work in the industry. Levitt noted the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Career Center will work with students after they complete the program.

“There isn’t a culinary institute or pathway into the food industry for adults anywhere in the county,” Levitt said. “This doesn’t exist. … That’s important to us — when we see something is missing, we move into action to address what’s missing.”

Levitt said the program will not only serve the individuals who take part, but the community at large.

“Many local restaurants are having trouble finding qualified staff,” she said. “We knew we had the skills to train people, so we could bolster the local economy.”

As part of the recruitment process, Stone Soup Cafe is partnering with local organizations, including the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Kimball House re-entry program, the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, and The RECOVER Project, among others.

The cafe is especially invested in growing a cohort of students who are in recovery from addiction, living in poverty or were formerly incarcerated, according to the press release. However, applications are open to anyone who is passionate about cooking or seeking a new career in the food industry.

Interest forms can be filled out online at The turnaround time for interest forms will be short to accommodate a May 2 start date, so interest forms should be submitted as soon as possible, Levitt said. Applications will be sent to those who express interest by mid-April.

In a way, the Stone Soup Culinary Institute will formalize the training Levitt and others have informally been offering volunteers over the last decade of serving weekly meals at the All Souls Church.

Levitt added that the culinary institute is just part of a “larger vision,” which includes eventually looking into buying space in a downtown building to create “state-of-the-art classrooms and teaching kitchens, dining and event spaces, and community spaces.”

“We know we have a grand idea,” she said, “and we know we can execute it and make differences in people’s lives.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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