After moving to Gilroy in 2016, Isaac Bravo searched for culinary classes to nurture his love of baking he gained from working with his mother in the kitchen.
But he struggled to find the classes suited for young people, until he and a friend noticed a flier for the Kneaded Culinary Academy, a program of the Gilroy-based Rebekah Children’s Services that teaches culinary skills under the leadership of Executive Chef Carlos Pineda.
The two applied, and quickly worked their way up in the class. The results speak for themselves: Bravo, now a graduate of the academy and Christopher High School, is attending the Culinary Institute of America and is in the middle of an externship at the Four Seasons Resort in Lanai, Hawaii.
Bravo told his story to the dozens of people who attended Kneaded’s seventh annual Pop a Cork fundraiser at MOHI Wine in Morgan Hill on May 18.
The culinary academy trains young people ages 15-25, many of whom come from a background of abuse, homelessness or other traumatic experiences, on the ins and outs of cooking and running a professional kitchen.
Upon completing the program, the students earn their Food Handlers card and have the opportunity to be placed in a paid apprenticeship program at Kneaded. The bakery caters a variety of events, and all proceeds are injected back into the Culinary Academy.
Since its founding in 2009, more than 2,100 young adults from across Santa Clara and San Benito counties have graduated from the academy, with a 98% job placement rate, according to Kneaded.
Bravo, who flew in from Hawaii to serve his desserts at Pop a Cork, said he dreamed of baking professionally during his time in high school, but he also realized that “traditional academics was not for me,” and was in danger of not graduating.
He got accepted into the highly competitive Culinary Institute of America, but the program came with a high price tag: $80,000. Bravo said he discussed his situation with Pineda.
“I celebrated my success with Chef, who understood my desire to go to the school and the situation I was in,” Bravo said. “He encouraged me to get my grades on track and I began to put in the hard work needed to graduate.”
Bravo added that Pineda also encouraged him to apply for scholarships, and provided him with culinary industry sources to help him get further financial aid.
In June 2022, Bravo graduated Christopher High School with more than $30,000 in scholarships.
“I am forever grateful to chef and the Rebekah Children’s Services family for their unrelenting love and support which has gotten me to where I am now and the places I will definitely be going in the future,” he said.
During Pop a Cork, Kneaded apprentices cooked and served a variety of dishes, including fried calamari, lamb lollipops, steak and mushroom shish kabobs and more.
Andrew Briggs of Kneaded said the program is continuing to expand its reach, and recently started working with Santa Clara County Diversion and Reentry Services as well as young people in the probation system to teach them job and culinary skills.
Pineda, who has been with the program for 13 years, said he has seen the growth of the academy during that time.
“We’re not just doing this locally anymore,” he said. “We’re doing it countywide, Bay Area-wide, Silicon Valley-wide, California-wide. We’re going to keep growing and help as many individuals who need it. Everyone deserves to be loved, to be embraced, to be fed.”