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Person to Watch: Jonathan Jernigan
Cooking up food for the soul
By Heather Morse

Photography by David Michael Howarth

At 4 pm every day, Jonathan Jernigan welcomes the members of what he considers his extended family to enjoy dinner with him. They quickly fill the seats – all 216 of them – in the spacious dining room inside Cathedral Kitchen, eager for a warm, wholesome meal.

Jernigan, who is the executive chef at the Camden facility, carefully choses and prepares each day’s menu, whether it’s beef stroganoff paired with a fresh green salad or roast beef with red bliss potatoes and green beans. Each nutritious meal is plated and served to the many impoverished men, women and children who need the sustenance, whether they’re homeless or need occasional support making ends meet.

“I want these people to feel like they’re coming home to eat dinner. We’re family here,” says Jernigan. “These are my brothers and sisters, and I want to lift them up and give them the best meal they can have each and every day.”

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Photo by David Michael Howarth

On an average day, Jernigan and his staff at the non-profit Cathedral Kitchen feed nearly 400 local residents. In addition to the main course, additional provisions like fruit, sandwiches, crackers, bottled water and juice is often bagged and given to each patron as a “take-home” supplement.

“The number of people coming in goes down at the beginning of each month since people get their assistance checks then. At the end of the month, we sometimes feed closer to 500 people each day,” explains Jernigan. “The economy has also brought more people in on a regular basis. We’re all the same, and we need to understand that it could be any one of us here. You could lose a job or a spouse and be here in their shoes in a second. It could happen to anybody.”

Last year, Cathedral Kitchen provided more than 180,000 meals. To feed this many people, Jernigan and the organization rely mainly on donations from local companies and area gardens. The donations vary from day to day, so the 46-year-old chef must be creative with his meals. “We always include fresh fruits and vegetables and make sure every meal is balanced,” he says. “We also cycle the menu to give plenty of variety.”

While the nutritional aspect of each meal is always a consideration for Jernigan, it’s not his only focus as a chef. “I sit down and talk with the people here and eat with them. When you provide and share food with those around you, you’re doing more than just feeding them – you’re also nourishing the soul,” he says.

This belief in the power of food and cooking is evident in Cathedral Kitchen’s Culinary Arts Training (CAT) program. Under Jernigan’s and sous chef Linda Christianson’s careful tutelage, the 17-week program trains a select group of students who are unemployed, unskilled, homeless or at risk of homelessness in the basic fundamentals of cooking.

“We hand-select the students,” says Jernigan. “We look for people who have a passion for cooking and are wanting to change their situation. We’ve had students anywhere from 18 years old to 60 years old.”

Beyond knife skills, food safety essentials, baking instruction and other basics required in the kitchen, Jernigan says the program also includes several life skills workshops. Students also go on field trips to local grocery stores, and during the last several weeks of each session, they participate in internships at various restaurants and service establishments including Seasons 52, Tortilla Press and ARAMARK. Nearly 150 students have graduated from the CAT program since it began in February 2009, and the majority of the graduates have gone on to work in the culinary field.

“We want the entire program to be a positive experience that changes each student’s mindset. We’re here to provide the skills, love and guidance to help them make a right turn toward a job instead of a left turn back to the block,” says Jernigan.

He’s tough, but also quick to praise the hard work and achievements of his students and graduates, including 30-year-old LeBaron Harvey. “He was in prison for half of his life and has two brothers who are doing life. He started volunteering here and then signed up for the first class,” says Jernigan. “He ended up being the valedictorian, and we hired him as a chef. He’s been here for almost two years and is a key piece of the kitchen. I’ve seen him learn what it’s like to be a man, and watching him grow has been unbelievable.”

Jernigan, who was born and raised in Willingboro and still calls the SJ town home, has first-hand knowledge that doors can open with the right skills and determination. His first job was flipping burgers at McDonald’s. From there, he attended the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. “Money was tight when I was a kid, so that was my first experience with gourmet cuisine,” he says. “I had never even seen a boneless chicken breast until then.”

In the years following, he worked his way up through the ranks at several local restaurants and even had a brief stint on the Food Network’s reality show “Chopped.” “I got ‘chopped’ from the show pretty quickly,” laughs Jernigan. “The show is really fast-paced, and I’m more of an organizer and planner.”

Soon after his short-lived TV experience, a friend told him of the executive chef job opportunity at Cathedral Kitchen. “It was a no-brainer,” he says. “I had already been working in Camden for years, and the job gave me the chance to be around the people I wanted to impact on a daily basis. This place has become my home away from home.”

Though it’s only been a few years since Jernigan joined the Cathedral Kitchen staff, his impact has already been far-reaching. “He has a wonderful personality, and he’s given a face to our kitchen,” says Karen Talarico, the organization’s executive director. “Everyone knows him – every time he walks down the street people yell out ‘Hey, Chef!’ He’s a wonderful mentor and personifies what we do here.”

Not one to rest, Jernigan is hard at work to further expand the organization’s offerings and impact throughout Camden. As a member of Cathedral Kitchen’s homeless outreach team, he travels each month throughout the local neighborhoods and into Camden’s tent city to meet the many who can benefit from the nonprofit’s services. “It’s important we get out and be a part of the community,” he says. “We need to see what their needs are.”

Jernigan is also excited to launch the organization’s newest venture. “We recently started Catering From The Heart, a catering business where all proceeds will go back to Cathedral Kitchen,” he says. “The students in the culinary program will all be part of the business, and we’re going to hire previous students. I want Cathedral Kitchen to be the biggest, best thing in Camden.”

October 2011
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