Stories Behind the Booze: The Women of Social O.T.R.
Warm spring air has a way of reviving the sidewalks of Cincinnati. And on one of the first warm evenings of April, I found the stretch of Elm Street surrounding Social O.T.R. buzzing with life and color… a beautiful start to my first interview for Women of Cincy.
Upon your first step inside the restaurant, it’s difficult not to become immersed in the large cobalt and white mural that spans the entire right-hand side wall. Accompanying the mural are angular light fixtures, polished wooden accents, and vibrant floral abstracts that seem to jump off the dark blue walls. All of these features lend to the modern, chic-but-not-stuffy atmosphere.
Social O.T.R. is a nonprofit restaurant owned and operated by Findlay Market that turns out divine dishes – all created by students who have committed to a 16-week internship-style training program in collaboration with CityLink Center.
General Manager Anthony Berin opened the doors of Social O.T.R. in February 2019 with help from a Kickstarter campaign and his drive to forge new career paths for people overcoming barriers and hardship.
I was led down a brick-lined hallway – which I later learned used to be an actual alleyway – to the Alley at Social, a second bar and dining area that perfectly rounds out the dynamic nature of the place. I sat down with Lindsey Cook, director of culinary education; Jen Kempin, executive chef; and Sam Dewald, employment specialist, for an hour-long interview that I happily would have extended through the next day.
Interview by Brittany Barker. Photography by Chelsie Walter.
Join us for May Boozy Hour with Women of Cincy at Social O.T.R. on Thursday, May 9, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Event + interview sponsored by Social O.T.R. In the spirit of full disclosure, we should note that our editor-in-chief and residency director, Kiersten Wones, is an employee of Social O.T.R.
Can you walk us through Social O.T.R.’s culinary program curriculum and what the students experience?
Lindsey Cook: I teach the students over at CityLink Center and oversee the Findlay Culinary Training Program. So, what the students go through is a lecture called ServSafe. It’s a nationally accredited safety and sanitation class, and our goal is to get them to go through the academic part so they can ready themselves for a certification test. It’s the managerial level of food safety. I lecture that class in the mornings and then they’re in the classroom kitchen with me from 12:30 to 5 p.m., five days a week. They’re there for four weeks, learning the basic fundamentals of culinary techniques.
A lot of our students talk about wanting to own something, to be an executive chef, so we’re always trying to set the tone and create the path for that, making sure they know with the education they get from Jen, and the guidance they’ll get from Sam, our goal is to move them into a decent career path within the industry. We don’t want them to just be line cooks, and they know that.
Jen Kempin: After they leave Chef Lindsey’s tutelage at CityLink, they come over here for 12 weeks where they do an internship under myself; Chef Eli, who’s our culinary instructor here; and our executive sous chef, Patrick. Between all of us, we start them on a rotation. They begin learning how to prep and how to really move and speak in a restaurant.
They’re going to learn new techniques, new industry trends… things like that. We try to push them into a direction where they could walk into any restaurant in Cincinnati and go, “Oh, I’ve done that; I know what that is.”
I’m here for the students in whatever capacity they need.
Sam Dewald: I come from a social work background; I’m the resident social worker. I was hired as an employment specialist. Anthony and I have developed a network of industry partners – these are restaurants that are committed to hiring our students and are really excited about our program.
I work with the students to learn what their interests are – what kind of restaurants they want to work in and also what their skills are so we can find them the right fit. My main goal is to find them employment once they leave here.
I’m also a student advocate. So when students are at CityLink, which is our partner, they have a service coordinator that helps them with their day-to-day stuff that might be barriers to their employment. But once they move over here, we’ve realized that our students need some extra support outside of just their service coordinator at CityLink, and I’ve become that person. I’m here for the students in whatever capacity they need.
Can you tell us more about CityLink and how they connect to Social O.T.R.?
L.C.: The building itself hosts over a dozen partners that assist their clients in moving past barriers. They have a really unique setup in that you can go there to determine how you can find assistance for financial needs, housing needs, and transportation. They also have health options. You can go to see a dentist; they also have an optical doctor. When people come to CityLink, they’re looking for support. They want to move past something and find direction. Everything is in one building, so they don’t have to go all around town for these individual things.
CityLink realized they had the need and the space to do workforce development. So they have an I.T. partner there that helps in developing an entry-level certification. They also have day-to-day employment opportunities around downtown. They help orchestrate a schedule for them; they transport them there.
They had a full kitchen onsite and a big café space; they realized they could put that to use. Anthony – through Findlay Market – had a relationship with CityLink, and they realized the need for a work-first development program. Findlay Market was interested in creating one, and CityLink was interested in sending their clients in that direction. They decided to house us in the kitchen they weren’t using. They introduce us to the clients that are interested in a job relating to culinary arts, and they help get them ready in the social service realm so they’re ready to commit to the 16-week program that we have.
S.D.: All of our students have to be a client of CityLink. They work with a social worker there to develop goals. And if their goal revolves around being in the restaurant industry or food, they have an interview with us.
Once students are in the restaurant, they’re still going back to CityLink every Monday, continuing to work on employment skills. I go on Mondays and we have a group discussion to see how everything’s going. It’s a nice partnership. A lot of programs similar to ours house everything in one building. We can really focus on the culinary here and CityLink can focus on the other pieces.
How would you describe the vibe in the kitchen here at Social O.T.R.?
L.C.: It’s very open. I love it, because there’s not a lot of the layers of what could be drama. I tell the students right of the bat in the classroom, “It’s no offense to you, but there’s no need for an explanation. It’s ‘Yes, Chef’ or ‘No, Chef,’ because this is a quick-paced industry. You have to learn how to communicate like that.”
S.D.: The restaurant industry is one of prevalent addiction, partying, late nights, long hours. I really want our environment and our restaurant to be leaders in the industry for work-life balance, and not a focus on drugs and alcohol. We don’t talk about drugs or alcohol in this restaurant, front of house or back of house. It’s not something we can do with our students experiencing addiction. And it’s an environment I want people to feel welcome in. No matter where they come from, their gender, they’re welcome.
J.K.: This should be a safe space.
What are some of the benefits students can take advantage of while they’re in the program?
S.D.: We have funds through donations that provide money for our students so they can invite family in [to dine] while they’re working. Or after they graduate, they can come in and have dinner.
L.C.: It was a Kickstarter we did; it was a pay-it-forward thing, and that’s what it’s being used for, to support our students’ families dining experiences, so they can come in and be impressed by their spouse, son, or daughter.
L.C.: The students also get a binder that has recipes we go through in the class, and they get access to Chef Jen’s binder of recipes that’s like nine times as big as mine. And then they get shoes. A uniform is very important in our industry and also very important for people who don’t know what they have to wear to a job. We actually have a rental program with Cintas. They provide the students with uniforms from day one; they get to wear it to all of their classes if they want to. On the first day of class, they get a pair of industry shoes, and they’re very good.
J.K.: It’s huge, because those can be very expensive.
L.C.: And they last for years. So the students are always like, “What, I get a pair of shoes!?” They also get a knife kit – a whole knife kit that they start with. They learn how to hold the knife, all the different cuts and how to hone and how to maintain it. And then they bring it over here to the restaurant and Chef Jen adds to that and continues their knife skills. Then they get to take their own professional knife kit with them after they graduate.
J.K.: And most restaurants are that way: You have to have your own equipment.
L.C.: It’s hundreds of dollars for coats, shoes, knives, and stuff. Upon graduation, they’re extended the opportunity to take these things with them. And it’s another level of empowerment and professionalism. They’ve got the right shoes on.
J.K.: If these people walk in with confidence to any restaurant, they’re going to have the ability to be hired. I’d rather hire somebody who has smaller amounts of experience and a little bit of swag, a little confidence: somebody who wants it and has that drive. And to finish this program, that shows me they have drive. We hired one of students who graduated here.
What are some of your favorite moments that you’ve shared with your students?
L.C.: Jen had communicated with a student that she could have time off because she’s been through a lot and she’s just been granted privileges to see her child who she hasn’t seen in a long time. She looked at that schedule and she cried, which was really cute. She said, “I’m going to work so hard to make up those hours that next week.”
I like that she built up the courage to ask. That was really neat for me, because it’s a student who’s had a lot of challenges. For her to be at this point in the fourth week of the class, when during the first week she wasn’t even comfortable telling me what shoe size she wore because she was embarrassed that she didn’t really know… She had been in so many situations for so long, she didn’t know her shoe size. She’d always been given them or just not worn them, depending on the season. For her to have that moment, wanting to see her child – that was so cool.
J.K.: It makes me a little teary.
L.C.: A lot of the students’ diets change over the four weeks they’re in the class. A lot of these students come in with experiences where they’re given food. They’re not asked what they want. They’re in awe of their creations. And it’s really fun and neat to watch their nutritional awareness and flavor development.
A lot of the students realize the science behind it. They’re realizing how much their bodies have to do with the outcome of the food they’re cooking. Those are the moments to me that make it worth it, when they can see how it affects them personally, and then they talk about it when they go home: “All my kids ate broccoli this week, Chef!” They’re taking it outside of the classroom and into their lives.
S.D.: We have a student who’s just so excited about being in the restaurant industry. Yesterday I was at CityLink and I saw him. I went over and he’s reading a food magazine, just flipping through it, and he said, “I go home and I dream about food; I think about food. I never would have picked up this magazine before. It’s all I can think about.”
When the recorder switched off and the interview wrapped up, I received the ultimate invitation. I was asked to go into the kitchen and meet the students in action. I took a step into the kitchen, and it took a few moments for the students to realize there was a new face in the room – they were all fully immersed in the task at hand. I could see the pride in their eyes – the confidence in their stance. You could hear in their voices, they were all in their happy place. “We love it here!” a lovely, young female student chimed as I took in the hustle and bustle of the environment. Each student wanted to be there.
I know you’re ready to experience the tasty creations the chefs-in-training are whipping up! Join us at Social O.T.R. on May 9 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Bring a friend or two, share a plate, and enjoy fine dining for a great cause.