Bridge Culinary helps former addicts cook up new job opportunities —and offers the community catering for a cause
Clockwise from upper left, resident kitchen lead Ryan Salazar and fellow resident Benjamin Garcia; a salad of baby spinach, arugula, roasted golden beats, orange candied walnuts, goat cheese and pickled red onions prepared by the residents; and a group shot of all the cooks the night of their annual fundraiser, from left, Jesse Diaz, Ryan Salazar, Benjamin Garcia, Cache Swanson, chef Zach Wilson, Larry Callahan, Lamont Dunlap, Matt Turner, Rudy Divin, James Harriss, Efren Celaya, Frank Rebelo and Fortino Lario.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARGAUX GIBBONS
“We’re trying to make something out of nothing here,” Zach Wilson says emphatically on the morning of e Bridge Restoration Ministry’s 11th annual fundraising banquet in October. Wilson is the chef/educator behind Bridge Culinary—the new culinary training program and catering service that is part of The Bridge’s 12-month residential rehab program for men and women recovering from substance abuse. Along with his focused team of program residents, Wilson is cooking an elaborate dinner for tonight’s 300-seat, sold-out event.
Wilson started developing the program about a year ago when he was a resident at The Bridge himself. Director and founder Mike Casey says that it was always a goal to establish a culinary education program. As he puts it, “e guys always naturally gravitated towards the kitchen.” So when Wilson, who previously worked for Aqua Terra Culinary and Rancho Cielo Drummond Culinary Academy, entered rehab with the intention of utilizing his background while he was committed to the program, Casey was excited to support his efforts.
Wilson started by organizing the residents to cook weekday dinners for the house. “Some of this is just about teaching these guys how to cook for themselves—fresh, homemade meals,” Wilson explains. But for those at The Bridge who are serious about pursuing a culinary or other service industry career, he wanted to provide the correct training to give them a competitive edge in the job market after they leave the program. Eventually, Wilson aims to open a Bridge restaurant where the program participants can work.
Since it opened in 2006, The Bridge has always had a vocational training element, which in the realm of culinary skills included residents working after Sunday’s services at The Grille at Calvary Monterey, a church with which the Bridge is affiliated. But after completing the residential program, Wilson was hired by The Bridge and expanded on that. He implemented a curriculum with structured class time when residents can learn the basics of French technique along with practical skills—such as purchasing, budgeting and meal prep.
“There’s been a lot of trial and error these past few months, but that’s what needs to happen,” says Benjamin Garcia, an affable yet determined resident. “It’s encouraging to be able to see the growth of the program while at the same time seeing growth in myself through all the new things I’m learning in the kitchen.”
For Wilson and the residents, the most rewarding aspect of Bridge Culinary has been catering. From church socials to weddings to chamber of commerce events to a luncheon for the probation department, Bridge Culinary has built an impressive roster of clients over the past few months.
“Having all the probation officers for lunch—that was a big deal!” says Casey. “Opportunities like that give these guys confidence to be out in the community and be recognized for something other than their past.”
Moving forward is a key element to The Bridge, but Wilson also believes in complete transparency about his journey. “It’s easier to tell the truth and be upfront and honest about yourself,” Wilson tells me. “We’re a Christian program—we don’t hide in the shadows; we face our demons.” This extends to the relationship Bridge Culinary wishes to have with the community: “I want people to know that we’re here to cook tasty food, but also to connect and share our stories and potentially help people who are going through their own battles with addiction.”
“We’re here for our community, both small and large,” Wilson continues, “to connect, to train, and to put good, sober people back in the workforce.” When questioned about the challenges that exist for graduates entering an industry that is notorious for addiction, Wilson thoughtfully considers his answer. “I do recognize the challenges,” he says. “But you have to send people back into the world eventually. I’m a chef. This is what I can teach. This is how I can help.”
“Food is the backbone of our community— the growing, the cooking, the eating,” he later reflects. “We’re working hard to be a part of that.”
The Bridge Restoration Ministry
225 Central Ave., Pacific Grove