Wash your hands. Get your gloves. Sharpen your knife. Pick up an onion. Dice. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
That’s the way culinary careers begin — learning to master something seemingly as simple as chopping an onion, then moving on to master more complex skills. While the process is the same for the young adults attending class in the kitchen at Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield, these students face an extra layer of challenges. They’re enrolled in Minnesota Life College (MLC), a nonprofit vocational and life-skills training program for young adults on the autism spectrum and with other learning differences.
The school, which was founded in 1996 and has an enrollment of about 100, attracts students from around the country (and one international student). Like a traditional college, there is an enrollment and acceptance process and a tuition fee. Students live on the Richfield campus and attend classes to work on independent living, social skills and employment readiness. They also choose one of three certificate programs: retail, hospitality or culinary.
The hope for an independent life — and a decent job — is what’s brought them here. The kitchen, operated by Bon Appetit Management Co., is led by chef Christian Pieper and general manager Susan Davis. The 7,000-employee site is a full-scale — and very busy — operation. “We have 1,200 breakfast and 3,000 lunch transactions in a typical day,” Davis said. “At lunchtime, we complete most of our meal service in 90 minutes.”
The 42-person staff members work in the from-scratch kitchen, prep grab-and-go meals, prepare to-order food at cafe stations and serve as cashiers. Like many other food service employers, this operation is always in need of reliable, skilled employees. And that’s the opportunity these students are seeking. Since Davis and Pieper began volunteering with MLC students in the fall of 2017, Bon Appetit has hired six students for its staff.
Today, while Davis is working with hospitality students in the cafe, Pieper is in the kitchen, teaching another week’s worth of a 12-week curriculum on the basics of culinary work. Today’s class is on chopping, and the students will work with onions, celery, turnips and herbs. In the next few weeks, the class will learn topics, such as buffet setting, food presentation, table setting and catering service. While a capstone experience is still in the works, the class has previously culminated in a meal prepared and served by students to staff from Best Buy, Bon Appetit and MLC.
Taking it all in
While there’s a constant flow of purposeful work all around Pieper — timers beep, equipment carts roll by, and the doors to walk-ins slam open and shut — he remains focused on his students. His love for his career is evident, and he seems eager to help the students see how much fun it can be to create and serve delicious food. His booming voice conveys a masterful blend of patience and enthusiasm, and he keeps up a steady patter throughout class: “Let your knife do the work! Trust your knife and trust your hands!” He’s quick to note victories, however small. “Look at that dice!” he says to one student. “That’s awesome, dude!”
He hands out cubes of raw turnip, urging the students to taste and consider.
“That’s how you get to be a chef — you have to taste everything, even if you think you might not like it,” he encourages. Grabbing a bunch of parsley, Pieper demonstrates an advanced two-knife chopping method, then tosses the resulting mince in a practiced arc across their cutting boards. “Look at that, how beautiful it is,” he says, and all four students dutifully examine the gorgeous green display on their boards.
Sitting in with the class is Meg Neuville, culinary instructor at MLC. “We want our students to develop meaningful skills, so we’re offering this learning-by-doing,” she says. Her colleague, Lukas Hampton, is a hospitality instructor. “Many of our students study at MLC to overcome obstacles they may face socially,” he explains. “Bon Appetit offers them an accessible and encouraging place to tackle those challenges and connect their growth to customer satisfaction.”
Hampton introduces Sam Leikind, 21, an MLC student who started out cleaning up and refilling in the coffee area of the Best Buy cafe, and who has now moved on to cashiering. “The first time I was really nervous, but I’m better now. I feel more confident,” Leikind says.
With all this training taking place in the Best Buy headquarters building, it’s no surprise that the company is a strong supporter. Having MLC just down the street from Best Buy’s Richfield location made a partnership “a very natural fit,” according to talent acquisition specialist Andrea Vetterkind. “We want to help MLC students learn career readiness skills, while also giving Best Buy corporate employees and leaders the opportunity to develop skills around working with a wider audience of individuals,” she says. “This program increases our employees’ awareness of the skills that these students have to offer.”
Back in the kitchen, the class has moved on from onions to celery. Pieper talks with Andrew Sunderdance, 22, who is carefully working his way through a pile of vegetables. “You’re like Speedy Gonzalez, you’re doing that so fast,” he tells the young man, whose face lights up. “I like that this is professional and practical,” Sunderdance says. “I like seeing what a professional kitchen looks like.”
Davis stops by to introduce two of the recent hires she’s made for the front-of-house. Alicia Stilwell, 32, is an MLC graduate. She says she was initially shy during customer interactions, but she watched others and has learned that customers are patient with her. “That’s because they look forward to seeing you,” Davis tells the smiling young woman.
Patrick, 22, who asked to use his first name only, is still a student at MLC, but also has been hired by Davis and is getting ready for his third day in the sandwich prep area. When approached with questions about his new job, he keeps his eyes on the floor and barely speaks above a whisper. “It’s hard for me to talk to people,” he admits. Davis jumps in: “I saw a smile from you just yesterday,” she reminds him. “I see that you’re getting better every day.”
She’s enthusiastic about the opportunities Bon Appetit can offer: “These are solid, full-time jobs. The MLC students we hire receive the same training, pay and benefits as any other employee.” She praises the quality of the new hires: “They are remarkable examples of positivity. The joy they bring to employment is unlike any I’ve ever seen. And for their part, they get to be productive, be part of a team, feel accepted and have opportunities to grow.”
As this week’s class starts to wind down, Pieper asks the group, “Can I buy you lunch today after class?” Davis has a suggestion: “It’s easy to choose a hamburger and French fries every time, because that’s familiar to you, and of course they will taste good, but you’re culinary students now, so I encourage you to try something you never may have tried before.”
“Taste everything!” Pieper bellows.