PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A restaurant in downtown Portland is working to train those at risk of homelessness in professional culinary skills with the ultimate goal of stability and finding employment.

Stone Soup is not a soup kitchen, but rather a dining and catering hall establishment that serves the general public.

Stone Soup is a non-profit restaurant that trains people at risk of being homeless with culinary and life skills. December 28, 2019 (KOIN/Danny Peterson).

The non-profit mostly operates like a normal restaurant, except that behind the scenes people trying to stay off the street are receiving hands on training from professional chefs and lessons in life skills.

“People at risk of being homeless and just looking for a right direction, this is a good home,” said participant Michaela Huff, 37. “The people are really nice. I feel the love here. I feel like from here, I’m going to go to the places I need to be.”

Huff is currently staying at a shelter and at just three weeks into the 12 week program, she already has aspirations for opening her own Cajun-style food cart next summer. She said many of her extended family members operate food carts around town.

Restaurant co-founder Craig Gerard explained the importance of the life skills training, which include doing mock interviews for potential employers and being a self advocate.

Stone Soup employs professional chefs to help train those at risk of homelessness. From left: Craig Gerard, Executive Director; Ronit Kirshner Gerard, Co-Founder; Connor Braddock, Chef Trainer; Sean Sullivan, Chef Trainer; Scott Dolich, Chef Instructor. December 28, 2019 (photo courtesy Craig Gerard).

“Sometimes our program participants are just missing a little bit of confidence. They have the skills, they have the necessary talent to get a job. But maybe they get stuck in a lower wage job because they haven’t learned to successfully advocate for themselves. And so that’s a big part of the life skills program as well.”

Stone Soup’s training program includes the basics of working in a kitchen, soft skills like personal finance and communication, and having the opportunity to receive food handling certification and an Oregon Liquor Control Commission Alcohol Server Permit. The alcohol permit is an optional part of the course since some participants who are in recovery may be triggered by working with it, Gerard said.

In a later training module, students are placed into non-paid positions at participating restaurants, some of whom may be a potential future employer. A network of restaurants that coordinate with Stone Soup are also available for participants to inquire about employment, regardless of if they graduate the training program.

Gerard started the restaurant with his wife, Ronit Gerard, over a year ago.

Craig (left) and Ronit Gerard started Stone Soup over a year ago to converge their shared passion of food and giving back. December 28, 2019 (photo courtesy Craig Gerard).

The program is still relatively new, with only one iteration of the training course completed. Among that cohort, two graduated, and both found jobs right away, Gerard said. The second and third iteration of the training are currently underway, at various stages.

As for Huff, she said entering the program has meant following a passion for cooking at home she’s had ever since she was a small girl picking greens and peas for Sunday dinner with her grandmother.

“This is a very exciting point in my life right now,” she said. “It’s a dream of mine. My auntie, she just passed about six months ago. And she wants me to become a chef. So this is kind of like a birthday gift to her, too. I’m going hard right now for it.”