A teacher changed the course of chef Antwon Brinson’s life. Now, as he trains Charlottesville residents for kitchen careers, he’s trying to do the same for his own students.
Brinson says he never thought he’d become a chef. He enjoyed cooking growing up, but didn’t consider it a career until high school. “I had a teacher that believed in me,” Brinson says. “He’d seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” With his encouragement, Brinson joined the school’s cooking team, made it to state competition on his first try, and eventually started cooking for a living.
By early 2017, Brinson’s culinary career had led him from West Virginia’s exclusive Greenbrier resort to high-end restaurants in Hawaii and California, but he wanted more for himself and his family. “I started to look for something in a location that would allow me to plant my feet, and a position that had the potential for growth,” he says.
He spent the next year running the kitchen at Charlottesville’s Common House social club, where an initial hiring snag ended up inspiring his next step. “I couldn’t find staff to save my life,” he says. In this saturated restaurant market, a shortage of qualified employees left “everybody robbing Peter to pay Paul just to get one person to staff a restaurant who didn’t leave.”
Brinson decided to create a program that would help people make a decent living in the kitchen. “I’ve spent my entire career building teams, training people, and I’m passionate about it,” he says. He found partners in the city’s economic development office; local restaurants willing to take on the program’s graduates; and CATEC, which provided classrooms and kitchens.
Brinson’s class, free of charge to successful applicants, launched last May with six students. “It’s called Culinary Boot Camp for a reason,” he says. “It’s five weeks, five days per week, five hours per day.” He doesn’t accept casual or half-hearted students. “You’ve gotta be passionate. You don’t have to have any experience, you’ve just gotta want it.”
An initial classroom discussion about each week’s theme—life skills such as integrity, focus, and communication—gets fleshed out with kitchen drills in what Brinson calls “a controlled environment of failures.” Brinson challenges his students to make mistakes, learn from them, and then help each other avoid them. “By the fifth week, to be honest with you, they’re teaching each other.”
After a sixth week of real-world tryouts in Charlottesville restaurants, Brinson’s first class passed with flying colors. “We finished the program with 100 percent retention, 100 percent of all students passed the tests, and 100 percent job placement,” he says. His second cohort of 10 students launched October 15 at the Charlottesville Cooking School on Barracks Road, with four more students on a waiting list for a third class.
Down the road, Brinson says, he’d like to launch his own restaurant to develop students and help them impress future employers. He proudly keeps in touch with previous pupils as they pursue their new goals—passing on the same support that helped him get his start. “Having someone that had the foresight to say, ‘Hey, this kid has potential,’ and just taking the time to invest in you,” he says, “that’s what made all the difference for me.”
Cooking up a more satisfying future
Chef Antwon Brinson’s Culinary Boot Camp is helping locals with culinary talents sharpen their skills and their goals. One graduate of his first class credits Brinson with helping her realize her ambitions, while another followed Brinson’s advice out of the kitchen—and into a slightly different and unexpected career.
Shamia Hopkins has worked in the culinary and hospitality industries since her early teens. She signed up in part to obtain ServSafe food safety certification and further her career, but says she ended up learning a lot more than that. “You’re never too old to ask questions,” she says. “No question is a dumb question, [and] it’s okay to not know everything.” Hopkins says this insight changed her whole outlook on cooking: “I saw myself having the ability to create more than I thought I could. I felt like I regained my imagination and passion.”
The confidence she gained in the program has helped Hopkins expand her new catering business, including a successful “soulful farm to table” food booth at a recent Tom Tom Festival event. “Chef Brinson is one of my biggest hype men,” she says. “He encourages me to just go for the gold.” Long term, Hopkins says she wants to open “an awesome farm to table bed and breakfast.”
When Daniel Chen applied for Brinson’s Culinary Boot Camp, he’d just left a UVA graduate program in sociology. And while he says he’s loved cooking at home for years, his professional food-service experience began and ended with a former gig working front-of-house at a Chinese restaurant. Chen most remembers the classes’ emphasis on “the crucial balance between proactive preparation and on-the-spot flexibility,” which he said “paradoxically…helped me realize that I didn’t actually want to be a chef after all, but instead that baking was more my forte.”
In the final phase of boot camp, Chen sought out a trial run at MarieBette bakery, because “the more controlled atmosphere of production baking suited my personality better than more variable à la carte kitchen environments.” That tryout landed him a full-time job on MarieBette’s 4 a.m. shift. Chen now spends his early mornings baking dough from the night before, readying tarts and treats for the following day, and pursuing a new artistic interest in bread stenciling. “I’m enjoying my time at MarieBette and hope to continue learning as I work,” he says. “Whatever the future holds, I’m sure it will be some mix of bread and books.”—NA