Finding His Calling in the Kitchen with a Little Help from WITS

In 2014, while teaching WITS Labs at Alfred E Smith High School in the Bronx, Director Marion Williams saw that all too familiar look in the eye of one particular teenager when he had his hands in a mixing bowl or with a chef knife. The WITS standard programming brought a much-needed focus on nutrition to the school, and gave the students the opportunity to expand their palates through WITS Labs. “Our classes empowered students to learn how to cook for themselves and eat properly, and also encouraged them to take advantage of initiatives that the school already had in place, such as free breakfast and ‘snack swaps,’” says Chef Marion.

A teacher who worked in the school’s career center first introduced Chef Marion to then sophomore Isaish Thomas. He was taken by our cooking classes and wanted to learn more. Because there was little opportunity for one to pursue culinary interest outside of directly participating in the WITS Labs, Marion decided to create her own internship program. She took Isaiah under her tutelage, along with three others. “This young man inspired me while I was in the high school,” says Marion. “Many days, people wanted me to just give up on these students, and I had to press forward that Isaiah (the youngest 1 of 4 interns I had while there) was always waiting for me and looking for our next project in and out of the school.” Isaiah began as a classroom assistant, helping with set-up and clean-up of WITS Labs. “I assisted with anything she needed help with, because I wanted to get as involved as possible,” says Isaiah. 

Wellness in the Schools could see that he was serious about culinary education. Says Isaiah, “I’ve always loved cooking. I’ve never had a problem figuring out what I wanted to cook. I can always follow a recipe, and tweak it and improve it and make it my own. It’s what I find so interesting about cooking.” Even though he was still in high school, Marion pulled some strings and gave Isaiah the opportunity to work with our WITS Executive Chef Bill Telepan. He interned at the eponymous restaurant Telepan, and received intensive culinary instruction from Chef Bill and his staff for a year and a half. “I would head over to the restaurant as soon as my day at school was finished, and would be there until 8:30 or 9,” says Isaiah. “I worked mostly in the garde manger section, which is basically where cold dishes were prepared, and I helped with its prep work. I thought my time at Telepan was great – not a lot of people were able to work at such an amazing place. And I was just starting off on my culinary journey! And, of course – working with Chef Telepan was amazing…I look up to him a lot. He’s always doing something, keeping himself busy, getting things done.” 

Isaiah graduated from Alfred E.Smith last year and is now studying Culinary Arts and Agriculture at SUNY Cobleskill. He tries to cook for his friends and family as much as possible within the limits of his tiny dorm room kitchen. “You have to work with what you’ve got…for example, you learn to remix mac and cheese with spring onions!” 

Along with being a full-time student, he currently works at a catering center. While he has experience in the restaurant field, he has found that certain aspects of catering really interest him. “I’ve been working with this boss for four years, and he’s been exposing me to a lot of what on-premise catering looks like. I find it really cool. You know what you are preparing and what you are getting, and you get to work with customers to customize and create.”  

Isaiah will be graduating this spring, and his hope is to find a job within the culinary field so he can use the skills he has learned and honed over the past six years. So much of the work we do at Wellness in the Schools is an indirect consequence of our standard programming – through a simple WITS Lab,we were able to shed light on a culinary path for a focused young sophomore. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to work at Alfred E. Smith years many years ago, to have crossed paths with Isaiah, and to get this chance to see how one small encounter has shaped his life.