In New Milford, Dawn Hammacott’s passion for food launches hundreds of restaurant careers
NEW MILFORD — More than 230 unemployed or underemployed adults have passed through the doors of the Community Culinary School of Northwestern Connecticut, leaving with careers in the food-service industry.
Dawn Hammacott, its executive director, opened the school with Peg Molina, New Milford’s social services director, in 2007, after the pair spent a year and a half researching, planning and fundraising. Hammacott has a restaurant background. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and began managing restaurants before she opened the Grand Patisserie, a bakery she owned with family members for 13 years.
Hammacott credits the school’s success to the generosity of individuals and businesses in the area who volunteer their time and donate money, as well as the restaurants who provide internships and jobs to the students.
The 12-week sessions are open to economically at-risk adults who are 18 and older. Students learn culinary and life skills at the school based at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Milford. The food prepared in classes is brought to the New Milford Food Bank.
- How did you get involved with cooking? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
My interest was sparked at a young age while making holiday cookies and desserts with my mother who was an outstanding cook and baker. I loved spending time with her in the kitchen and really enjoyed the creative outlet. Cookies always bring smiles to faces!
- How did the idea for the school come about?
It was a true meeting of the minds with Peg and myself. In business, I always believed in giving someone an opportunity to prove themselves no matter what their background. I was intrigued when I read about programs in some areas of the country that were training unemployed and underemployed adults for careers in food service. After the Grand Patisserie was sold I volunteered at the New Milford Food Pantry and, in talking to Peg, learned that she had the same interest. Lo and behold the idea for the Community Culinary School was born and began to take shape and here we are 231 graduates later.
- Your school has a strong record for placing students in careers after graduation. How does it feel to see these statistics and hear success stories?
We are very proud of our job placement rate, which is at 96 percent, with a 95 percent retention rate post six months’ graduation. We have this success rate, not because we are handing someone a job, but because we are providing training in the job and life skills they need to succeed. In addition to culinary training that touches on all aspects of working in a professional kitchen, our students receive training in employment skills, financial literacy, goal setting, etc. For me personally, nothing is more gratifying than having the opportunity to give someone the tools they need to get started on a career path that can change their lives and that of their families, whether it is a young person just out of high school or an adult laid off from a longtime position. The food service industry is one with opportunity for individuals from many different backgrounds with various interests and skill levels. We are also able to help those in need in the community as food produced in classes is donated to the New Milford Food Bank. Our students welcome the opportunity to give back to their community.
- You used to own a bakery in town. Do you prefer teaching or baking? Why?
Baking will always be a passion, but I have moved on to something that is much more gratifying in so many different ways. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is something that I truly feel I was called to do. The success of my students and graduates means everything to me.
-Do you have a favorite recipe to make? What is it and why is it your favorite?
I do still enjoy baking but now it’s mostly for my family. Christmas cookies are still my thing! I’m happy to continue the family tradition.