Kevin Riordan: Chef gives parolees in Camden a new course in life

Chef Galal Moin talks to trainees in his Camden kitchen. In addition to former inmates, students include referrals from other agencies and walk-ins.
Chef Galal Moin talks to trainees in his Camden kitchen. In addition to former inmates, students include referrals from other agencies and walk-ins. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2011

Perhaps there's another Egyptian-born, French-trained chef somewhere in South Jersey, but only one shares skills he learned in Paris with parolees in Camden.

"I've worked in four-star restaurants," says Galal Moin, citing stints at Maxim's and several major hotels on the continent. "But this is the most important job of my life."

After four decades of working in Europe and the United States, Moin (pronounced moyne) essentially came out of retirement to supervise culinary arts and catering programs at Respond Inc. He had intended to stay three months but has been executive chef at the nonprofit human-services agency for almost two years.

"I am blessed," says Moin, who's 63 and lives in Merchantville.

Housed at Respond's New Worker Job Development Center in North Camden, the culinary programs are supported by private and public funding and are expanding citywide, with a bakery, a banquet hall, and a second kitchen set to open this year.

Local 54 of Unite Here, the casino workers' union, connects many students with entry-level jobs in Atlantic City. Others get jobs elsewhere or continue to study cooking at county colleges.

"My students start by peeling four or five onions," says Moin, who began his career 41 years ago, peeling veggies. "When they leave, they can cook a four-course meal."

The 16-week program accepts recently released inmates, individuals referred by other agencies, and people who walk in to the brightly painted complex at Eighth and Erie.

Word of mouth is so strong, there's a 65-person waiting list for the 15 slots in a coming class. Every year about 120 people, mostly young city residents, complete the training.

"We're not teaching burgers and fries," observes chef Shawn Harris, one of Moin's colleagues. The 40-year-old Pennsauken resident is a veteran of the old Sands Casino in Atlantic City, as is Respond pastry chef Kendall Elliott.

"We're teaching them to use fresh ingredients, fresh produce, and make sauces from scratch," Harris says. "We teach all the great cuisines."

The kitchen is not only a classroom but also a workplace; it produces daily meals for more than 900 Respond day-care clients. The staff includes some graduates of the culinary-arts program.

"I've worked here about a year. . . . They say I'm good with pastry," says Robert Anderson, 25, of East Camden.

"It gets hot in the kitchen, but it doesn't get boring," says Franchesca Vicente, a 22-year-old resident of the city's Whitman Park neighborhood who is a Local 54 apprentice.

Anderson and Vicente clearly love what they do.

But even students who lack motivation - who come in after time in jail, with few skills and fewer options - can learn, Moin says.

"You have to be a dad, a teacher, a mentor, and a supervisor, and a chef is all of that," he says.

A chef is also a "dictator," a label Moin embraces despite insisting he lacks the tempestuous temperaments of TV cooking stars.

"Idiots. They're all show. They make me sick," he says. "I do not holler or shout or curse. I earn my students' respect.

"But I like things to be right, the way they're supposed to be. We are not in a fast-food business. . . . I always want it to be perfect. Even here."

The teacher is also a student, inside and outside the kitchen.

"Camden is different from the reputation," the chef says. "Most of the people here are good, hardworking people.

"But some need a push, and some have made mistakes. They need a second chance. Everybody needs a second chance."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

 

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