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The Joy of Cooking

This single mother of four strives to own a restaurant and is getting her start at the Bidwell Training Center.

Janine Johnson is about to become one of Bill Strickland’s “products.” That is, she will soon successfully complete a course in culinary training at the Bidwell Training Center. Strickland isn’t shy about speaking of his students in market-oriented terms. “They’re human beings who are now capable of participating in the environment in an effective way,” he says. “That’s an outcome. That’s a product.”

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Johnson, 37, is doing her part. A single welfare mother of four, she gets up every day at 5 a.m. and takes three buses on a two-hour ride to BTC, where she spends all day studying to become a chef. It’s a tough schedule, but she doesn’t mind. Each day moves her closer to her dream of opening her own restaurant – which she wants to call “Janine’s Four Winds Reservation,” a nod to her half-Cherokee heritage.

“I hate being on welfare,” she says. “I appreciated the help when I needed it, but I can’t stand people sitting around when they can do something.”

Like all BTC students, Johnson is learning for free – in surroundings that live up to Strickland’s insistence on providing the finest available learning tools. At BTC, Johnson studies nutrition and food management in a $1 million amphitheater-style classroom that is modeled after a similar space at the Culinary Institute of America. And she gets plenty of hands-on experience: Every day, she and her fellow students prepare and serve gourmet meals at cut-rate prices for the staff and students of MCG-BTC.

Johnson knows the value of what she’s getting; before learning about BTC, she checked out a local private culinary institute. Tuition for that program cost $26,000. What’s more, BTC teachers are strong believers in Strickland’s vision of social change, and their commitment shines through their work. “There’s an attitude here,” Johnson says. “Keep going on, work harder, strive for something better.”