New ConnCAT Cafe Takes The Cake

Stanley Hair’s orchid-studded triple-layer cake was exhibit A Tuesday for the opportunities a new Newhallville cafe will offer unemployed and underemployed people looking for culinary careers.

The cake’s bottom and top layers were chocolate with chocolate ganache and tiny chocolate morsels. The middle, a vanilla-strawberry concoction, sported a frosting flat and yolky as early-morning sunlight. A fondant-painted Rice Krispie treat boasted the letters “Orchid Cafe” at the top. Across three layers, orchids that had been dipped in simple syrup and sprinkled in sugar glittered.

The cake was the piece de resistance Tuesday afternoon at the official opening of the cafe, a new part of a program at Science Park called Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT), a job training and teaching incubator with a mission of serving unemployed and underemployed New Haveners.

A year after starting its 10-month training program in culinary arts, the center opened its Orchid Café for lunch five days a week. Open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the cafe is run by graduates of and current students in the culinary arts program as job training for other New Haven and Connecticut restaurants. It’s intended to help students “transform their lives” through culinary arts, said ConnCAT chief Erik Clemons.

“This used to be a place where they made weapons of destruction,” city government prison reentry director Clifton Graves said of the cafe, which occupies one of the former Winchester rifle factory buildings that now comprise Science Park. “Now we have an army of construction.”

A culinary army with members like Hair, who graduated from ConnCAT’s training program last year. Two years ago, Hair was working at a Westville Burger King and doing shifts at Jordan’s furniture. He didn’t want to be at either place, but needed to pay the bills.

“I knew I wanted more,” he recalled.

Then he heard about ConnCAT’s new program from a friend. In January 2016, he started classes there under Chef Eric Blass, learning meat prep and sauce composition as well as basic knife skills. He had liked baking since high school. Now he started putting more time into it, taking fastidious notes on measurements and spices, how much fat to put in the perfect buttercream frosting or the right grade of chocolate to use for a smooth ganache. During the program’s externship, he started working at ROÌA restaurant downtown, transported from the world of baked goods to the quick pace of restaurant cooking.

When Hair graduated, there was no need to go back to Burger King: both ROÌA and ConnCAT wanted to keep him.

Now he spends his mornings hopping between the kitchen and cafe, where he serves as a baker, works with ConnCAT’s second cohort of culinary trainees, and helps run operations with sous-chef Yazmin Fuentes and another ConnCAT graduate. Then he takes off his blue “Orchid Cafe” polo—or sometimes it’s a white chef’s smock—and heads to ROÌA in the evening. There, he works as a salad chef, and is learning to use the grill.

When Hair started at ConnCAT, he thought maybe he would join the culinary staff on a cruise ship after the program. Several three-layer cakes and baking lessons later, he’s aiming to open his own New Haven bakery and cafe in two or three more years.

The cake took him a week to design and bake with other students.  The chocolate-on-chocolate touch for the cafe’s opening—Clemons’ favorite, he said—is in honor of ConnCAT’s faith in him and his colleagues.

Hair’s personal story of new opportunity is one of many at the cafe, which owes its opening in part to a $100,000 grant from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD). With a mix of grants and individual donations, that $100,000 will go towards knocking out the back wall for a 20-seat patio, four new plant beds for herbs, fruits, and vegetables, and making a few outstanding changes to the space.

As Clemons and ConnCAT Board Chair Carlton Highsmith outlined those renovations at Tuesday’s opening, students Latasha Jacobs and Tasheena Alston stood inside the kitchen, perfecting their piping skills on hundreds of chocolate and vanilla cupcakes that guests scooped up almost as fast as they were frosted. Under Blass’ watchful eye, Meghan Robinson pointed out the differences between gamey beef empanadas and garlicky vegetable ones, spooning a sun-dried tomato pesto over the top as she spoke. Trevor Martin walked visitor Ony Obiocha through the basics of Mediterranean orzo salad.

Watching all of it unfold, Fuentes walked over to her usual menu planning and prep spot, and breathed a quick sigh of relief.

Like Hair, Fuentes wanted more from her career before coming to ConnCAT. She had loved to cook growing up, but had trouble finding work when she’d applied for jobs. For three years, she had pursued a management track at Kentucky Fried Chicken, working her way up to shift supervisor. “I realized I could do better,” she said. Her mom had been the one to spot a flier for ConnCAT’s new, free culinary training program early last year. She’d urged her daughter to try it out.

A year later, she’s one of the cafe’s integral first cooks, planning its weekly seasonal menus, doing meal prep, and working with current trainees in whom she sees herself.

“It really did change my life,” she said.

At the opening, Governor Dannel P. Malloy said that he sees the cafe—and ConnCAT more broadly—as part of the “second chance” society that has become one of his legislative pillars. Joined by DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith, Malloy lauded ConnCAT’S model.

“There’s a level of excitement and engagement that you don’t see even in like-minded institutions … I can’t imagine a more effective place to learn,” he said. “The idea that this program is teaching, graduating, and helping 100 percent” of its students fits into his hope for a second chance (“or fourth, or fifth, or sixth chance,” he added to applause) society that doesn’t just forgive people “who have made mistakes,” but trains and employs them, and reassures them of their self-worth, he said

On a tour of ConnCAT earlier in the afternoon, Malloy also praised the center’s phlebotomy program. “Just don’t prick me,” he told a class of aspiring professional blood-drawers.