In a cramped church basement on the Upper West Side, with pots and pantry staples lining the walls, chef Andrea Bergquist-Zamir discussed paella with 19 students and explained how to flavor fish stock.
A 15-year veteran of top city restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern and Tabla, Ms. Bergquist-Zamir is a knowledgeable—if unlikely—instructor for the Chef Training Program run by West Side Campaign Against Hunger.
Aspiring chefs get hand-on training in a course offered by the West Side Campaign Against Hunger. Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal
Chef Andrea Bergquist-Zamir Adrienne Grunwald for The Wall Street Journal
Ms. Bergquist-Zamir, the former executive chef at celebrity restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster and Merkato 55, has traded in her 12-plus-hour workdays to teach at the social service organization that serves several hundred families a day at its grocery store-style food pantry.
After helping open restaurants as well as cooking for President Obama, the 46-year-old Ms. Bergquist-Zamir said she asked herself: "What's next?"
"It was like, how many of these fancy meals can I keep cooking?" she said. "I wanted to make a difference in people's lives."
Ms. Bergquist-Zamir was turned off by the idea of teaching at a culinary school, where she said the main ambition of many students is to "become famous TV chefs overnight." But an ad that she spotted for WSCAH on a jobs website appealed to her.
Though offered for 10 years, the class became a rigorous job training program after Ms. Bergquist-Zamir took the reins in late May, staff at WSCAH said.
"In the past it was more about healthy cooking, learning to cook at home and showing pantry clients how to prepare farmer's market vegetable donations they might not be familiar with," said Stewart Desmond, the organization's executive director.
Ms. Bergquist-Zamir designed her 12-week syllabus to mirror one of a professional cooking school—beginning with sanitation and nutrition, then progressing to basic knife skills, stocks, sauces and other fundamentals.
A few students have worked in professional kitchens, but most are home cooks or have no cooking experience.
Ms. Bergquist-Zamir's first graduating class, in August, included Russell Brown, 52, a recovering alcoholic who was referred by the Bowery Mission, where he was living at the time. With Ms. Bergquist-Zamir's help, he is now a line cook at the Upper West Side Shake Shack.
"She was tough," Mr. Brown said of his mentor. "She likes you to work fast so she'd always be saying, 'Russell, hurry up, chop-chop!' I appreciate it, though, because now at work I can multitask."
Tim Knapp, the Bowery Mission's director of career training and education, said of Ms. Bergquist-Zamir: "She wants her students to walk out of that class to absolutely be work ready…she pushes students to their limit, but that's what a great leader does."
Homelessness, domestic violence, immigration status, illness and addiction are among the challenges facing many of Ms. Bergquist-Zamir's students. To help put them on the path to self-sufficiency, WSCAH has added three counseling sessions to the program, said Mr. Desmond.
After the discussion about paella and a quiz, the students moved into WSCAH's tiny kitchen and found themselves in three groups—one mixing falafel dough, one making hummus and one practicing the "batonnet" cut on carrots. Ms. Bergquist-Zamir works with items donated to the food pantry and chickpeas—an ingredient in falafel and hummus.
Cynthia Miller, 47, a WSCAH client, recently earned her credentials as an alcohol and substance abuse counselor but "didn't want to sit around while looking for work," so she enrolled in the class. JoAnn Bethea, 56, hopes to one day use the skills she is learning to launch a food pantry in Jamaica, Queens, where she lives.
At a November harvest dinner that benefited WSCAH, Ms. Bergquist-Zamir's students demonstrated what they had learned so far. Her first graduating class staffed the kitchen, preparing mini-quiche hors d'oeuvres, roasted chicken with fall vegetables and polenta and warm applesauce cake; her current students handled front-of-the house duties.
Chef Tim Sullivan of the Manhattan catering company Great Performances assisted, and his colleague, Brian Fung, gave a seminar for servers before the big night. Mr. Sullivan was so impressed with the skills of graduate Jennifer Garcia that he hired her for his pastry team.
"It made me tingly all over," Ms. Bergquist-Zamir said of Ms. Garcia landing a job. "That's really what the goal is here."