Tony Lavatori Teaches Cooking Skills With a Side of Self-Esteem

In his nine years with the program, the former corporate restaurant manager guides participants into food-service careers.

Illustration by Chris Danger

The director of Cincinnati COOKS celebrates nine years with the culinary job training program.

I read somewhere that before coming to the Cincinnati COOKS program, you were an acting partner and restaurant and culinary manager at Bonefish Grill. Why did you decide to make the switch to the nonprofit world?

Before my time in the restaurant industry, I worked for nonprofits and government agencies as a wildlife biologist. In the summer I worked as an adventure education specialist, elevating self-esteem and self-efficacy through the use of the outdoors. Life progression meant a change in career paths, so COOKS is a return to raising self-esteem through experiential education and to help students reach lifelong stabilization.

What are some of the things you learned during your time in the restaurant business that you use at Cincinnati COOKS?

What is really needed to be successful in a kitchen setting. Skills like using a knife properly, sense of urgency, mise en place and other simple culinary skills. Other important skills that we teach include being on time, problem solving, time management, and more soft skills.

How has the pandemic affected the program?

Just like other organizations, we had to scale back on training numbers and put in place social distancing measures. We are checking temps and wearing masks.  Our kitchen is always sanitized to a higher standard, even before COVID. Now we are sanitizing the classroom as well as doorknobs and desks three times a day. We started back with half-size classes [this year] and restructured the program to work with smaller number of students. We are hoping to get back to full class sizes in July.

What new elements have you added to the program this year?

We have added a new piece of equipment that includes an additional griddle and salamander that allows us to add a new dimension to the program.

What’s your ultimate goal for Cincinnati COOKS?

Our goal is to not only provide excellent, relevant kitchen training and skills, but to help our students be successful in life long term.

Cincinnati COOKS, 1141 Central Pkwy., West End, (513) 482-3665

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