Greg Smith Finds His Way Through Food
Greg Smith has a real passion for all things food. When I met him at a community food event earlier this year, he started gushing about cooking, his recent graduation from the ConnCAT Culinary Arts Program, his home garden and his desire to teach homeless people in our community how to foraging for wild edibles. My heart swelled at his enthusiasm, and when I asked if he'd like to be interviewed for The Table Underground he invited me to his home to record and check out his plants.
When I arrived at his home, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Greg had all the fixings on the counter to cook us up a delicious lunch, and his brother was there to snap some pictures. Before hitting the kitchen, we sat down to talk, surrounded by the hot pink glow of grow lights nurturing seedlings under his dining table, desk and window. Every inch of space in his small kitchen was evidence of the joy he finds in food in all its forms.
Greg is a young black man from New Haven, CT, a graduate of Hillhouse High School and lives with his wife and baby girl in the Edgewood/Dwight neighborhood. In reflecting on his path so far, Greg said
"Coming from Hillhouse, it’s tough because most of us are taught to be athletes... or whatever it may be, but we don’t have that many opportunities, or even in school we weren’t taught how to go out and get a job. It’s kind of like after high school you have to learn this stuff... it gets real for us, there’s no waiting for it, life just hits you right in the gut."
In the years since graduating high school, Greg has struggled to find a career, and participated in numerous job training programs, many of which gave him a false sense of hope about finding a good job . "It’s a waiting game. Coming from New Haven, we are always waiting. We’re always waiting for opportunities, or doors to open."
Last year, at the advice of his mom, Greg enrolled in the ConnCAT Culinary Arts Program; a high quality, free, job training program for unemployed or underemployed adults in CT, including people who were formerly incarcerated. Greg already had a love of cooking, and his mom spoke highly of Erik Clemons and some of the other people who lead ConnCAT, so he felt hopeful that this program would be different. "When I finally got that chance...and I got to ConnCAT, [I said] wait, I only have to buy my shoes? This is real!"
Greg was quick to point out that the importance of this job training program is not that he didn't have to pay for it, but something much deeper. "It’s not about free... it’s all about investing in myself.” The beautifully built professional kitchen, rigorous culinary education, and the supportive staff, all bring value and a sense of meaning to learning there.
In truth, education and job opportunities are not generally about luck, but determined by circumstance of the life we are born into and the systems of power, race and privilege that exist in society. These factors are not easily overcome by an individual just working hard to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps". Organizations like ConnCAT can have a positive impact on both the structural inequities as well as the psychological impact of living in a society that intentionally disadvantages people of color.
"ConnCAT told us not to devalue ourselves and just settle for less."
In a world where the stories told about Black and Brown people are often negative, being told that you matter and shown that in practice each day, can have a powerful impact on your life. Many culinary schools cater to white, wealthier students. It's joyous to see a high quality culinary program that addresses the racial and economic inequity in food jobs, and provides a supportive learning environment for many students of color to gain skills and connections they need to get a foot in the door and succeed in a new job. Coming up in a cohort of students that share many life circumstances with you, also provides a feeling of support throughout the program and beyond. This experience sits in stark contrast to being the lone Black student, or one of the few low-income students at a private, high cost culinary school. For Greg, ConnCAT was a place that helped him develop skills around something he is truly passionate about, food. He also gained confidence in his learning ability and skills, as well as a support system to help him find work.
At heart, Greg is an entrepreneur, full of ideas for all the things he wants to do in the world. Over the winter, when I first met Greg, he was looking for a job, thinking about starting his own catering business and talking with Bun Lai of Miya's Sushi, an innovative restaurant around the corner from his home, about foraging wild foods. He was pretty adamant at this point that he wasn't very excited about working under anyone because it would stifle his creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. When I followed up with him this spring to see how things were going, he'd gotten a job at The New Haven Lawn Club and was loving learning from the older chefs there. "Right now I'm just humbling myself, keeping my head down and learning as much as I can."
It was great to see Greg transition from passionately searching for a focus to having some grounding in a job where he feels prepared for work, and is willingly being mentored by other chefs. As spring has hit, and he prepares to move his garden out of his kitchen and into the courtyard behind his home, I don't doubt Greg's world will continue to expand. As he gains more knowledge, his desire to use cooking and growing food to have a positive impact in his community will find a way to manifest. As he said, “I just wanna help. By me cooking and bringing a happy feeling to people, that’s a start.” The significance of a young black man spreading positivity, creativity, and hope is certainly not to be underestimated. Not today, and not ever.
Many thanks to Greg Smith for welcoming me into his home
and sharing his passions and thoughts so freely!
Click the play bar at the top of this post to listen to
our full interview with Greg, or tune in by podcast.