As chef trainer Travis Torsell looks on Community Kitchen Pittsburgh students Shamaya Davis and Maria Cob serve lunch to visitors. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Shamaya Davis aspires to own a restaurant. Her nine-year-old daughter just wants to see mommy compete on the TV series “MasterChef.”

Davis is on her way to making both of those dreams a reality as she prepares to graduate from Community Kitchen Pittsburgh (CKP), a nonprofit organization that gives disenfranchised people culinary arts training while helping them find stable employment in the food service industry.

“Literally everything in my life has fallen into place since I walked in the door,” a teary-eyed Davis says of the program. “Something new happens every day.”

Students attend classes on weekdays for 12 weeks at the Hazelwood facility. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., they learn everything from basic knife skills and recipes for “mother sauces” to high-volume cooking and sanitation. Using those skills, they prepare up to 2,000 contracted meals per day for local charities, schools and businesses.

About 70 percent of CKP participants have previously been incarcerated.

“We want to serve people who have barriers to employment,” Executive Director Jennifer Flanagan says. “We have recovering addicts and people transitioning from homelessness. They have just been stuck in poverty mode, unable to get above minimum wage. We try to stabilize them while they’re with us, give them a new professional network and prepare them for employment with wraparound services.”

About 300 students, ranging in age from 18 to 65, have graduated since CKP launched in 2013.

It’s part of a national system of learning facilities called Catalyst Kitchens that helps place workers in the food industry, which is in dire need of skilled hands. CKP has more than 80 employer partners, including restaurants, caterers and chains such as Omni Hotels & Resorts. These companies hire graduates or offer valuable apprenticeships.

Darryl Coaston, the organization’s lead chef trainer, says he is the embodiment of CKP’s mission statement: “We use food as the foundation to change lives and strengthen communities.” Coaston had wanted to change the direction of his own life after spending time in prison. He originally joined Springboard Kitchens, a now-defunct nonprofit similar to CKP that Flanagan helped run.

Showcase Lunch at CKP. Photo by Kristy Locklin.

Every Thursday, CKP hosts a Showcase Lunch that’s open to the public. For a $5 suggested donation, visitors try cuisine from around the world. A recent menu, focused on Spain, featured seafood paella, roasted vegetables in Romesco sauce, spice cake, churros and vegan chocolate cake.

Chef Trainer Travis Torsell, a former Marine who left his studies in criminal justice at Penn State for a career in the culinary arts, designs the menu each week. Guest chefs such as Kevin Sousa from Superior Motors in Braddock also work with students to create new and interesting dishes. In February, Kate Romane of Black Radish Kitchen will be the featured guest chef.

Along with attending Thursday lunches, Pittsburghers can help CKP by volunteering at the center, donating cookbooks or making a financial contribution. On Feb. 9, CKP will hold a fundraiser featuring formal dance instruction, dinner and cocktails (tickets are available here).

There are big plans in the works: Within the next year or so, CKP plans to partner with a regional chef to open an on-site restaurant. Flanagan also is pursuing licensing to allow students to transfer credits to other colleges and institutions.

But right now, her focus is on graduation day on Feb. 7: “It’s my favorite day,” she says. “People have worked really hard to get to that point. I am so impressed with their commitment and transformation.”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.