CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – The end of one chapter sometimes leads to the recipe for a fresh start.

“Welcome to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte’s graduation of Class 72,” said Chef Ron Ahlert, executive director of the nonprofit that serves up ear-to-ear smiles, self-confidence, and tears of joy– especially on Graduation Day.

“Talk about a smile that is worth a thousand words, right?” Ahlert said of a graduate proudly holding his certificate as he posed for a photo.

The Community Culinary School of Charlotte helps folks change the arc of their lives with free training.

“Here I am, graduating 14 weeks later!” graduate Yoshi Creer shouted with glee at a December ceremony.

“To see somebody have the ability to take their direction of life in a better direction is very rewarding,” Chef Ahlert told Queen City News.

Later, we’ll tell you about some of the stories of the men and women of Class 72. But to fully appreciate their progress, it might help if you knew some of what they went through from Day One.

“Start adding your celery, carrots, and onions. Don’t be shy cooking for everybody in the room,” Chef Ahlert declared on September 19, 2022. That was the students’ first day in the kitchen.

“So guys… The film crew that you see, the two guys, they’re from Queen City News,” he told the group.

We set out to document Class 72’s growth as they overcame barriers to long-term employment.

“We have 24 strong, culinarians who are allowing us the privilege of helping them learn the hospitality industry so they can go out and capture some of the success that they envision for themselves,” said Ahlert.

Right away, it’s clear that Kenneth Thompson is a natural. He dreams of owning his own restaurant.

“My grandmother—she passed away in 2016—she always had a passion of cooking, and she raised me,” Thompson recalled. ”So I would always be right there in the kitchen with her, just watching her cook.”

This program leads students through a series of firsts, introducing them to the fundamental culinary term “mirepoix” back in September.

“Celery, carrots, and onions; or the start of most soups, stocks, and sauces,” Ahlert said, summing up mirepoix.

Then, on October 17th, 2022 it was Sauce-making 101.

From roux to béchamel sauce.

“Now once you start you can’t go to the bathroom or anything, you have to stay and finish (the sauce),” Chef Ron stressed.

“It costs about eight grand to put a student through our program,” he says. “We don’t take any money from them, we take their time and talent.”

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The free program sets them free personally and professionally.

“I was just looking for a change of lifestyle,” says Creer, among the standout students.

She was once hired to be the GM at an Atlanta hotel, but it took just three days to realize her heart is in the kitchen.

“I took a survey of my life and said, ‘What is it that I find myself doing when I don’t have to do it.’ And that was cooking, ha ha,” Creer remembers.

It’s hard to overstate their hunger for an opportunity.

“In the city of Charlotte, y’all are worth $15 an hour minimum right now, wherever you go–  supply and demand,” Chef Ahlert says to the class.

By December, the budding cooks were so close to their goals, they could taste it. It took more than a pinch of persistence to get through 14 weeks. On Graduation Day, they get a chef coat that feels like a badge of honor.

One goes to graduate Byron Haley.

“This is only the beginning,” Haley says to fellow students and supporters at graduation. “As I’m about to embark on my new journey as a full-time entrepreneur.”

Community Culinary School of Charlotte will remember their names.

Creer’s shining moment was loud, proud, and beautiful.

“It’s my calling, so I have a lot to be able to build upon,” she said of the training.

“I prayed, I wasn’t happy, my soul wasn’t feeling it,” Creer says, tears welling up at the graduation ceremony. “I was on the internet and seen—I still can’t the name right—Community Culinary School of Charlotte.”

Meanwhile, Bobby Lee Smith, Jr.’s rise is as remarkable as any of them.

“I came here to change my life,” the graduate said during his speech. “I’m currently in recovery; 27 years of drug abuse, two heart attacks from snorting cocaine.”

“No crying in the kitchen, alright!” Chef Ron shouts.

“I’m just very grateful and thankful for where God has brought me from,” Smith said later,

They’ve proven they can stand the heat. Now, it’s time to get cooking.

“I want to thank my family and my girlfriend for supporting me,” said Kenneth Thompson, the graduate who used to cook with his late grandma growing up. “Like Byron said it’s just the beginning!”

“She would be like, ‘I’m proud of you, you’re pursuing your dream,’” Thompson says

A total of 21 grads dare to dream on.

“Can we woop it up, that’s it for those graduates!” said Chef Ron, followed by cheers.

Then Class 72 posed for a group picture, giving us a look at what the future of the local restaurant industry looks like.

What happened after the photo?

Let’s get jiggy with it,” the grads said, dancing in celebration.

This month, the next crop of culinary students – Class 73 — started the program. It’s the Community Culinary School of Charlotte’s biggest group yet.

With every class, there are folks with perseverance and a sense of renewed hope.