NEW MILFORD --When it comes to meal preparation, Liz Paola is a perfectionist.

Not only does she want the food to be nutritious and delicious, she also wants it to be visually appealing.

"You eat with your eyes," Paola said. "If it doesn't look good, it won't taste good.''

The 35-year-old mother of a 10-year old daughter has been employed in the food services department at Candlewood Valley Rehabilitation Center since April.

At first, Paola said cooking three meals a day for 140 residents was a bit overwhelming. But, Paola leaned on her culinary training that included a catering service for groups from 10 to several hundred.

Paola has perfected making pureed dishes look like the regular food served to those who not following a special diet. On Monday, she displayed a plate of spaghetti with vegetables that actually was a soft version of marina sauce and noodles with a dollop of green vegetables arranged in a swirl pattern.

Her creative approach to food preparation led her to be accepted into the Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut, and to be one of its success stories.

More Information

About the school The Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut -- a nonprofit job skills, 12-week program for unemployed or underemployed adults offered at St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green. Cost is $3,500 per student, but the program offers income-related tuition assistance. Each session for up to 10 adults is offered weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and includes an internship and a ServSafe food management certificate for all graduates. Applications are being accepted for the next session to begin Feb. 7. For information, call 203-512-5791 or visit http://communityculinaryschool.org

Paola often considered culinary training, but she feared she couldn't afford it. Through the town Social Services Department, she was told she would likely be eligible for the $3,500 program. The school offers nearly all those accepted income-related tuition assistance.

Since the 12-week, five-day-a-week job skills program began three years ago at St. John's Episcopal Church on the Green, about 95 of its 100 graduates have found food-service jobs in local nursing homes, hospitals, restaurants and grocery stores, said Dawn Hammacott, the school's founder and executive director. Hammacott runs the program with chef Blythe Roberts. The program provides culinary and job skills training to unemployed and underemployed adults,

Students must complete an internship prior to graduation, as well as earn a ServSafe certificate, which is required at most food-service establishments, she said.

Prior to her March graduation, Paola was one of about eight interns working at the Candlewood facility. In April, Food Services Director Joann Miller said the department had an opening and Paola was her top choice.

Paola credits the program with rebooting her career. She'd lost her job at a hearing aid company 18 months earlier.

"It's a great program,'' said LouAnn Bloomer, founder and executive director of The Bridge to Independence and Career Opportunities in Danbury, which offers a workshop to the students on job interviews and resumes.

In this difficult economy, Bloomer said there are limited job training options and this program offers skills for an industry that is actually seeing some job growth.

"I'm just amazed at what a success they've been,'' Bloomer said.

The 1st and 10 Sports Bar and Grill is a new New Milford restaurant that has hired four graduates -- two students will be doing internships there next week -- with good results, said John Setaro, the kitchen manager.

"They are some of my most valued employees,'' Setaro said.

Such accolades are music to the ears of both Hammacott and Roberts, who, at the start, wondered whether they would finish their first session. The school's $148,000 annual budget relies strictly on private funding.

On Monday, Hammacott and Roberts' class of seven students -- five men and two women -- prepared chicken piccata with rice pilaf and green bean almondine followed by a dessert of Russian tea cookies.

All food produced in the daily lessons is then distributed to families who participate in the town food bank.

Roberts said he and Hammacott find great satisfaction in witnessing their students' progress.

Quoting Gandhi, Roberts said, "If you want to change the world, you do it one person at a time.''

Contact Nanci Hutson at nhutson@newstimes.com

or at 860-354-2274.