Miz Peña III always dreamed of becoming a chef.
He attributes his infatuation with culinary arts to watching “The Frugal Gourmet” on PBS or cooking shows hosted by the popular TV chef Julia Child. That led the Chicago native to tour the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, formerly known as The Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago.
“Ever since I was a kid, my mom can attest to this, I was always kind of creative, wanting to just play around with different foods, wanting to try to create different things in the kitchen,” Peña III said.
Peña III decided to put his cooking aspirations on hold. The cost of tuition for culinary school was too much for him to justify attending, he said. Peña III moved to Fort Worth and spent 13 years working a business role for Mercedes-Benz’s services and maintenance. Then he learned about culinary job training programs offered by the Taste Project, a faith-based nonprofit restaurant based in Fort Worth. Peña III applied to the nonprofit’s culinary pre-apprenticeship program in November 2021, which has successfully graduated 51 apprentices since its inception.
Peña III has been a part of Taste Project’s sous chef apprenticeship program since March 2022. It’s one of the three programs the nonprofit has been certified by the American Culinary Federation. As a sous chef apprentice, Peña III spends 40 hours per week at Taste Community Restaurant learning the ins and outs of preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The program also requires apprentices like Peña III to spend eight hours per week learning through the Culinary School of Fort Worth. Taste Project covers the cost of the culinary school’s tuition, Williams said.
The organization focuses on feeding and educating the food insecure residents in Tarrant County through its culinary job training programs and its “pay what you can afford” style restaurant located in Fort Worth’s Near Southside. The Taste Community Restaurant’s menu has no prices and when the check comes at the end of your meal — it’s blank. Instead, guests have the option to pay what they can afford to give to the restaurant, pay what they would typically pay or a little extra.
The restaurant has served more than 125,000 dinners since it opened its Fort Worth location in 2017, according to its website. In August 2022, the nonprofit started making plans to open a second restaurant in Arlington by early 2024. Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker and Arlington Mayor Jim Ross volunteered at the Taste Project in August and raised awareness about the upcoming location.
Jeff Williams has lived in Fort Worth for the past 18 years and founded the Taste Project in 2012. Williams wrote in his biography for the Taste Project that he grew up in a household where money was always tight. He remembers watching his parents skip meals to make sure he and his sister were full.
“I know first-hand the stress my parents encountered to put food on the table when times are tough. So when God challenged me to start Taste, I knew we needed a place that eliminated the stress and fear,” Williams wrote.
The nonprofit is driven by Psalms 34:8, a scripture in the Bible that says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.”
“Our faith is what drives us to do these things. We believe that we are doing the best we can in a way to provide a blessing to those in the community and an experience that hopefully allows them to see God’s goodness,” Williams said.
The Taste Community Restaurant isn’t made to replace a food bank or soup kitchen, Williams said, but rather provide a space where people who are experiencing food insecurity and those who want to help can sit at the same table for a meal.
“The system that we’re running is trying to put those people at the same table so that people can feel more connected to a community,” Williams said. “Breaking bread with people is what starts a connection, and it’s a cultural universal.”
Through the sous chef apprenticeship program, Peña III said, he’s learning the ins and outs of cooking techniques and preparing dishes. He has even had the opportunity to showcase meals from his Puerto Rican heritage like mofongo, a dish made with plantains and chicharrón.
“Think Caribbean, garlicky, and everything that has that Spanish influence to be a part of what I do,” Peña III said.
The experience Pena gets through the program fuels his passion for opening his own restaurant. Growing up, Peña III said, he felt that there were few options for teenagers to have a night out that aligned with his beliefs.
“At that time many years ago, you would go out to a football game, go to a roller skating rink or go out to the club,” Peña said, “whereas I wanted to create a place that was fun and had live music, and it was an alternative to the clubs.”
Peña III said he still has a long way to go before his restaurant dreams can become a reality. In the meantime, he is planning to finish the sous chef apprenticeship program by May 2024.
Peña III and his family go to Gateway Church in Fort Worth. When Peña III has to work on Sundays at the restaurant, he sees it as a way to act through his faith by providing a service to the community.
“I’ve learned so much,” Peña III said. “It’s a more interactive way of encountering God. Now’s my chance to actually, in a tangible way, give back with my hands to help people out.”
Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @marissaygreene.
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