Tourism & Cruises

Miami hotels need cooks, Overtown residents need jobs. A new program is changing that.

Culinary program brings new skills and new hope to Overtown

The first class of the H.E.A.T. Culinary Training Program in Overtown, fought through some big life challenges to make it to their graduation day. The program brings new skills and hopes of good jobs at the resorts that help fund the program.
Up Next
The first class of the H.E.A.T. Culinary Training Program in Overtown, fought through some big life challenges to make it to their graduation day. The program brings new skills and hopes of good jobs at the resorts that help fund the program.

Michelle Phillips, 32, beamed at the Fontainebleau Resort Miami Beach hotel business card resting between her thumb and index finger. It meant that she was one step closer to working as a hotel cook.

Every day for the last eight weeks, Phillips has risen at 6:30 a.m., roused her two kids, buttoned up her white chef’s coat and headed out the door of their cramped Overtown apartment. Neighbors along her 10-block walk to the Overtown Performing Arts Center wish her well. Some ask about her husband, who’s been in the hospital recovering from a heart attack. That was a shock — but she’s had the welcome disruption of the Hospitality Employees Advancement and Training (HEAT) program to keep her busy.

Before she was accepted into the training program, Phillips worked an hourly job as a dishwasher and line cook at a breakfast restaurant making $11 an hour. Now, some of Miami’s most prominent hotels are considering her and nine others from City of Miami’s District Five — comprising Overtown, Liberty City, Little Haiti, and Allapattah — for full time, $15 an hour cook jobs with benefits and paid time off.

Phillips and her classmates were the program’s first graduates just before Christmas. Primarily funded by the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, The Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, the St. Regis Resort in Bal Harbour and the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami in partnership with the Overtown community redevelopment agency, the training center is aimed at helping both the industry and eager workers. South Florida hotels get the qualified local cooks they desperately need, while residents of some of Miami’s poorest communities get good paying jobs with benefits.

For Phillips, the opportunity could be life changing.

“Having a job is the world for me right now,” she said. “It would be able to get us where we’ve always wanted to be.”

For a half century, tourism has been one of the region’s largest employers. In the past decade, it has seen even greater growth with a 42 percent increase in the number of overnight visitors to Miami, according to the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

To serve them, the number of tourism workers has jumped 31 percent since 2008, to 325,600 employees in South Florida, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add the growing hunger for sophisticated cuisine spurred by celebrity chefs and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and more than 2,300 new hotels and restaurants have opened since 2008, creating new positions for cooks.

Hotels often rely on J-1 work and travel visas to bring in cooks from abroad, leading to high turnover, hotel managers say.

“It’s quite difficult to find qualified culinarians in South Florida,” said Tamas Vago, manager of the Diplomat.

But the increase in local culinary training programs — at Miami Dade College, Florida International University, Johnson & Wales, and Miami-Dade Public Schools — hasn’t been enough to fill the gap. In particular, African Americans working in Miami’s hotel industry are often stuck in lower paying positions with fewer promotion opportunities, according to Miami’s hospitality union, Unite Here Local 355, which represents nearly 7,000 workers in South Florida.

Keeping a job can be just as tough as getting one. Nearly 17 percent of Overtown residents were unemployed in 2017, according to the U.S. Census, compared to 7.4 percent in Miami-Dade as a whole. For African Americans, job prospects are more grim: 25 percent of African Americans in Overtown are unemployed, compared to 13.8 percent countywide. And more education doesn’t necessarily mean better employment. The unemployment rate for people in Overtown with some college or an associate’s degree is 13 percent compared to 6.7 percent of county residents with the same education.

Phillips described Overtown as “underrated and overlooked.”

“You don’t get the same chance that you would get somewhere else,” she said.

Confronted with both problems, Miami’s hospitality union proposed the idea for the training center. In March of 2016, union leaders and City of Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon traveled to Las Vegas to get a glimpse of how Las Vegas’ Culinary Academy — a union, hotel and government collaboration — trains thousands of people for hotel jobs each year. As soon as they saw the place, they knew they wanted to start something similar in Miami.

Donovan Campbell, 49, former executive chef at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, had seen how the training center there changed the local hospitality industry by giving hotels a consistent, highly skilled workforce and giving traditionally low-paid workers an avenue for promotion. He moved to Miami in October 2017 to launch the Overtown training center. Similar training centers operate in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, New York, New Haven and Toronto.

The eight-week course, which is free for students, covers topics from waste management and kitchen product pricing to knife skills and plating. The training center is in the Overtown Performing Arts Center at 1074 NW Third Ave, a renovated African American church built in 1947 when Miami was still largely segregated. Campbell hopes that getting the hotels involved in the training center will translate into jobs for graduates. Participating hotels contribute around $80,000 per hotel. Miami International Airport restaurants, Marlins Park restaurants and the Gulfstream Park casino in Hallandale Beach are also contributing.

The union finds candidates for the program — some of them already working in hotels; Campbell then interviews them. He hopes to train around 150 students per year when the program is fully operational.

Vago, manager of the Diplomat, worked closely with Campbell to make sure the curriculum would fit the hotel’s qualifications. “Chef Donovan asked us what’s our need,” he said. “I’m 100 percent sure [the graduates] will be qualified.”

One graduate, Germanie Charles, 43, has worked as a food runner at the Diplomat for 14 years. She said she’s wanted to work in the kitchen but has never been able to move up. Now, the Diplomat will consider her for a cook position.

She’s worked hard for the opportunity. The program isn’t easy, say graduates. Most worked two jobs in the afternoons and evenings after class, some while struggling with personal situations at home.

“Their lives are rough. There are rough days,” said Campbell, the chef. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

At the recent graduation, Phillips told hotel managers and community leaders about what the training was like for her.

“I wanted a chance at a real job,” Phillips said about why she enrolled. “I spent the last two months not only pushing myself through the program, but holding my family together.”

The day after Phillips found out she had been accepted to the program, her husband Macalean Mayo, 31, collapsed in their apartment. His heart attack caused brain damage, and Mayo is having to re-learn all his basic bodily functions.

Hospital passes from Phillips’ daily visits to her husband are taped to the wall of her bedroom. “It’s a coping mechanism,” she said. Before he was hospitalized, Phillips said Mayo teased her that she wouldn’t finish the training program. Turns out not only would she finish, but she’d be interviewed by the Fontainebleau just days after graduating.

“I said ‘I bet I can finish the class,’” Phillips said. “I kept that promise to him.”

Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.