BERLIN — As anyone who has transitioned from school into the workforce realizes, an employer will give much less slack than will a teacher, but that is precisely the kind of thing Matthew Elburn, coordinator for the Community Work Experience (CWE) program at Worcester Technical School counted upon when asked Leo D’Aleo, head chef at the Atlantic Hotel, to participate.
The CWE program is an opportunity for special education students ages 14-21 to get practical real world experience. This isn’t practicing having a job, but is learning what it is like to have a job. And working in a kitchen of a high-end restaurant is not the usual workaday experience.
Of the four students who initially showed up, only one elected to stay and complete the program — Craig Mason.
Mason did well in his culinary arts classes at Worcester Tech but it was his attitude more than his skill that made him the right match for working in a kitchen.
“The think about Craig is that he is really positive,” D’Aleo said. “He’s also one of those rare young kids who can truly cut the mustard.”
For his part, Mason doesn’t see his demeanor as in any way spectacular. He likes to cook, but more importantly he has a deep understanding about how the industry works.
“I really liked it because it’s cooking,” he said. “And I still want to be a chef.”
For him, being in the kitchen was enough. If he had to wash dishes or mop or take care of the 100 menial things food service work requires, it was all part of working in the kitchen, and it paid off in the end.
By the time the semester ended, Mason was doing prep work and although he is technically still a student at Worcester Tech, working at the Atlantic Hotel is his only class and he draws a paycheck from it.
He measures out the crab cakes, divides and prepares the calamari and, possibly most importantly, makes the salsa.
“I am the salsa master,” he said.
That Mason worked his way into full time work is a credit to his willpower and fortitude. But as he prepares to go forward — he begins classes in culinary arts at Wor-Wic this winter but will continue his job at the Atlantic Hotel — both D’Aleo and Elburn deserve a bit of recognition as well.
It takes a bit of courage to push, rather than coddle a kid who is just starting out in the business.
Mason and D’Leo have at least one thing in common — they love the kitchen. It is not about the cooking alone, or the fancy tricks or even the cool drumstick-cover hats. It is about being part of a whole that produces excellent food consistently.
D’Leo challenged Mason to see the kitchen as a whole and to recognize the importance involved in each step of the process and Mason recognized and rose to the challenge.
For Elburn’s part, he helped put the right kid in the right job and gave Mason the tools and direction he needed. When asked if Mason was a typical example of what CWE students can accomplish, Elburn said: “He’s going to become typical.”
Because of their respective commitments to both the program and Mason particularly, each will be recognized by the Council for Exceptional Children’s Department on Career Development and Transition.
Elburn will be recognized as Teacher of the Year and D’Aleo as Employer of the Year. The award recognizes not so much that they helped Mason find and use the tools to succeed but more that they were able to develop a culture where the work and its responsibilities were not an exercise but a real experience with real consequences for failure and real rewards for success.
Achieving the success, however, was all on Mason.