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Food Futures: Renaissance Chef Helps Create Careers for Boston’s Youth

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 November Issue Newsletter

By Drew Love, Boston-Area Organizer

Food Futures

Julia Shanks, now a Boston-area restaurant consultant and food advocate, cooked for Bill Clinton and most of the White House Cabinet when she began her career at the first certified organic restaurant in the U.S. - Restaurant Nora. Julia’s journey from Chef to Local Foods Advocate really began with friendship, and a 100 acre farm in Southern Maryland.

While working her first job out of culinary school as a line cook, Julia became fast friends with Nora’s eventual chef, Brett Grohsgal. Brett was a staunch believer in farm-to-table cooking, even 20 years before the term was popularized. Restaurant Nora’s farm-to-table philosophy meant that there was an on-staff butcher, because Brett insisted that only whole animals be ordered and then broken down on-site. Julia remembers Brett growing the “best tasting spinach – the edges were tinged yellow with frost-bite and sweet as can be.” It was Brett’s newfound passion for farming that introduced Julia to crop rotation, butchery, and the subtle, and sometimes astonishing, taste difference of fresh local produce over store-bought. Once Julia and Brett left Nora, their friendship continued, with Julia traveling to Boston and Brett purchasing a 100 acre farm in Maryland.

After establishing her passion for flavors of local food from Brett, Julia turned to Boston where in addition to launching her own culinary consulting career, she began volunteer-teaching with Share Our Strength’s Operation Frontline (now Cooking Matters), where she taught low-income families the basics of cooking and nutrition. In explaining her commitment to community service, Julia says, “perhaps as a result of growing up in Washington, DC, I have always had a keen sense that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been… and I’ve felt a motivated to give back.”

Not long after her involvement with Share Our Strength, Toni Elka (another fast friend) approached Julia with an offer to judge a Future Chef’s cooking competition, and things developed from there. Fueled by a desire to train urban youth for good jobs in the culinary arts and bolstered by years of experience as a youth development leader, Toni Elka founded Future Chefs in Boston, in 2008. In a few short years, the startup idea grew from a one-person operation to a six-person staff that has served over 200 students, and was recognized as a 2011 Social Innovator award by the Root Cause Social Innovation Forum. Their most recent staff member, Aquila Collins, is a Future Chef Alumna and current Culinary Skills Assistant. Aquila says that if you ask her about Future Chefs, she “will tell you that it is not just an after school program, a scholarship program, or a cooking competition program... [but] was, and still is, a life changing program.” Future Chefs continues to change lives. They have recently opened a state of the art cooking facility to train their students, in addition to piloting a formal mentoring program that strives to place positive adult role models into the lives of their students. In Toni’s own words, “Being a mentor is paying forward the gift that my mentors gave me.”

Julia sees her responsibilities as two different sides of the same coin. “I work with entrepreneurs helping them start their own businesses, and work with Future Chefs to help build careers in the culinary arts.” As her career path has grown from line cook at a prestigious restaurant, to an advisor for an award winning non-profit and consultant for culinary entrepreneurs, Julia has never lost sight of her first love, the art of cooking.

NOFA/Mass is honored to partner with Future Chefs and feature Julia Shanks as the instructor for our Perennial Cook workshop on Sunday, December 9th from 1pm-3pm at the Future Chefs space at 560 Albany Street in Boston, MA. Click here to register.

NOFA/Mass members can get involved with Future Chefs by: becoming a mentor (you don’t need to be a chef!); volunteering your individual expertise; OR by signing up to receive info about their upcoming events and news. Julia co-authored The Farmer’s Kitchen, one of the books to be referenced in Michelle Obama’s recently published American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

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