Wards Island sits in the East River just off of Manhattan, physically part of Randall's Island since the 1960s when New York filled in a channel that separated the two. On Wards, HELP USA operates an employment center, part of Project EATS, that offers vocational training for up to 200 homeless adults. Included in this vocational training—a culinary arts program, operated by Chef Dan Maguire, where trainees learn to cook and use vegetables grown in the island's garden. Beginning this past winter, Chris Shea, executive chef at the modern American midtown restaurant The Wayfarer, has participated in the Wards Island program, hiring graduates and using food grown in the garden there.
"I was introduced to Help USA's Wards Island's Culinary Arts program by my friend David Burke," said Shea, the former executive chef at David Burke Kitchen. "I visited the program's kitchen with [him] back in December, where I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Dan Maguire. Help USA's mission is to help those who are homeless and others in need become and remain self-reliant."
Since then, Shea has hired two graduates from the program to work in The Wayfarer's kitchen, one of whom has since moved on. "The other graduate is doing quite well as a prep cook and will soon be learning to work a station on the line," explained Shea. "He came to us with a good foundation for working in the kitchen. He has a good basic knowledge of prep work, knife skills, etc., and most importantly has a good attitude about work."
Shea has been utilizing ingredients from the Wards Island garden for some time now, in dishes like a special market salad, a Tuscan kale, strawberry, and rhubarb salad, and an octopus and beet dish. "Zach, the farmer who oversees the Wards Island farm, sends us a list of what's available," said Shea. "So far we have received all sorts of lettuces, kale, herbs and scallions, Swiss chard, baby beets, radishes and snap peas." For Shea, the partnership with the Wards Island program offers him a chance to give back to those in need, as well as the chance to feature high-quality local ingredients in his restaurant's dishes. "The best part of this job is really to continue to learn and to teach what you have learned to others. It is great to be able to hire the graduates and help them on their journey."