Mac Waybright, youth culinary instructor at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, demonstrates how to hold a ladle to students Patrick Tracy and Rose Gilchrist. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — In the basement kitchen at My Place Teen Center on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Chef Mac Waybright, the center’s youth culinary instructor, showed his three students how to plate the turkey chili and cornbread meal they’d just prepared.

The kids listened intently as Waybright explained visual cues like browned edges that let them know the cornbread muffins are done. He showed them how to cleanly pry muffins loose from the tin, and how to ladle chili neatly, without dripping, by quickly pressing the bottom of the full ladle into the chili before bringing it to the bowl.

Some of the still-warm muffins broke apart as the kids tried to lift them out. The ladling trick isn’t yet second nature, either, so there were some spills here and there.

But the students remained focused and engaged, finishing the chili bowls with a sprinkling of shredded white cheddar. Minutes later, when a couple dozen of their peers piled into the center’s dining room, the budding chefs were ready to serve them.

This year, as My Place Teen Center marks its 25th anniversary having served countless at-risk area kids, the center’s restaurant jobs training program hits its own five-year milestone. My Place Executive Director Donna Dwyer estimates 80 students have passed through the center’s 10-week training program since its inception.

Rose Gilchrist, 19, delivers chili and cornbread to the dining room at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The restaurant training prepares the kids for jobs as cooks, servers and hosts, if they’re interested. But even those trainees who don’t see themselves moving forward with a culinary or hospitality career pick up valuable life lessons and develop workplace know-how that makes them more self-sufficient and better prepared to enter the adult world.



Providing free meals to area youths has always been a core mission of the center. “Plentiful free food is a great hook for kids to come through our red doors,” Dwyer explained. “Most of these kids come from an environment where hunger is prevalent and housing is a concern, along with some other traumatic issues in the home. If they weren’t eating this food here, they probably wouldn’t be eating anywhere else.”

A little over five years ago, Dwyer said the center decided the free meals could serve double-duty, in a way, if the students did the cooking, serving and cleaning. “We thought we could do more than feed kids, that we could actually embed a lot of job skills and life skills into the feeding kids component,” she said.

The center was able to raise about $200,000 for a full renovation of the kitchen in the center’s building, the former United Methodist Church, outfitting it with pro-grade reach-in refrigerators and a 10-burner electric stove with two ovens, among other improvements.

Dwyer and her staff also hired a professional chef to run the program, which is offered four times a year to a maximum of four students, the most the small kitchen can comfortably accommodate.

“We needed a chef who really wanted to work with teenage kids, and that’s a special skill set of its own,” Dwyer said. “And it’s not just making food, the chef is a mentor to at-risk kids.”


Mac Waybright, left, lifts a cornbread muffin out of a pan with help from Patrick Tracy, while Ethan Cook and Rose Gilchrist look on. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A professional chef for 30 years and former high school culinary arts instructor in Tennessee, Waybright is the center’s third chef and has been running the training program for nearly three years.

“He’s really patient with the kids and committed to not taking shortcuts,” Dwyer said. All the center’s meals are made from scratch, from pastas and pizza dough to salad dressings, breads and pastries – no empty-calorie crowd-pleasers like mac and cheese or chicken nuggets here.

Waybright said they aim to make meals that are wholesome and nutritiously balanced, but also appealing to finicky teen tastes. “Part of making sure kids are properly nourished is that the food has to taste really good, it can’t be lame,” he said.

Donna Dwyer is CEO of My Place Teen Center, which has been offering a restaurant jobs training program for five years. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Because the center has the bulk of its ingredients donated by organizations like Wayside Food Programs and Cultivating Community, as well as farms like Bumble Root, “we make do with what we get,” Dwyer said. Some items go over better than others with the kids: Swiss chard is a tough sell, but spinach does OK and roasted Brussels sprouts with a little bacon mixed in has won more fans every week this winter.

Waybright takes his young charges through three-hour sessions twice a week, drilling into them basic kitchen competencies like knife skills, prep work, sanitation and setting up the mise-en-place at their work stations. Kids who complete the program get a $100 gift card as incentive, but Dwyer said the work is often its own reward.

“Most kids love to cook, and love to be involved in the food creation,” Dwyer said.


In a given session during the program, Waybright may walk the kids through slicing, pounding, dredging and coating chicken breasts for chicken parmesan, or show them how to make dressing for a Caesar salad. He even teaches them to bake focaccia bread, “which is ridiculously easy,” Waybright said, “and it’s something the kids can do at home and show their parents how to make.”


The training does wonders for the kids’ confidence, Waybright said. He points to Patrick Tracy, a 13-year-old from Westbrook who had been chopping sweet potatoes and bell peppers for the turkey chili earlier in the day.

“Patrick loves the smells, the tactile sensation of preparing food, and he feels a great sense of accomplishment just taking these ingredients and creating something. That gives him a real sense of satisfaction,” Waybright said.

Patrick Tracy, 13, ladles cornbread batter into muffin tins in the kitchen at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“When he learns something he gets excited, you can see that spark in his brain,” he continued. “That’s a really good feeling when you see a kid learn something. And it leads to more curiosity.”

Tracy doesn’t see himself going on to work in professional kitchens, in part because of the demanding lifestyle. Dwyer said some of the kids simply enter the training program because it’s fun.


But his friend and fellow restaurant program trainee, Ethan Cook, said he’s considering becoming a restaurant chef. “It’s fun to have people eat your food,” said Cook, 14, of Westbrook. “They ask for seconds, and I’m like, ‘Oh, they like my cooking, that’s good.'”

Ethan Cook, 14, sprinkles cheese on bowls of chili. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“They’re truly a part of making these meals, and they’re learning to have a sense of pride in what they create,” said Rhonda Green, one of the center’s adult volunteers.

“The kitchen here is a great place,” said Tom Heckel, another adult volunteer. “It smells good, you’re working shoulder-to-shoulder, the music might be playing and you’re making something delicious and nutritious. To be part of that is a real confidence booster for them, and I think they get a lot out of it. They see that they can accomplish something meaningful, like feeding their peers or getting a leg up on a job.”

While most of the young trainees from the program who seek restaurant work land entry-level jobs at chain restaurants, Hannaford, or shops like Crumbl Cookies in Rock Row – where they’re highly valued for their foundational competence – a standout student like Niko Owen is able to join the kitchen at a place like The Frog & Turtle, Westbrook’s upscale gastropub.

Owen went through the center’s training program twice before starting at the restaurant in June. By late July, Frog & Turtle Chef James Tranchemontagne presented him with a 10-inch Wusthof chef’s knife, officially denoting that Owen had earned his place on the kitchen staff.

Prep cook Niko Owen, 17, chops leeks in the kitchen at Frog & Turtle Gastropub in Westbrook. Niko learned his culinary skills at My Place Teen Center. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Niko has a lot of natural ability,” Tranchemontagne said. “It’s not a charity case here, he’s earned everything. This kid is awesome, works as hard as anybody, and shows the desire to learn. Everybody in the kitchen, he reminds us of ourselves at that age.”


“Most of what I’ve learned comes from the Teen Center,” said Owen, 17, of Westbrook. The young man has also demonstrated enough creativity at Frog & Turtle to have some of his ideas for flatbreads or calzones incorporated into the menu as specials.


Before the restaurant jobs training program started, Tranchemontagne volunteered at My Place and taught cooking classes on occasion. He recalls a dismaying number of kids not even being able to visually identify bell peppers or zucchini.

But as the program boosts their culinary literacy, it also introduces kids to healthy food and eating habits. “(The program) gives those kids so many more life skills than I think the school system has given them. And they’re eating healthier than they eat at the schools or their homes,” Tranchemontagne said.

And the comprehensive kitchen lessons also ensure the kids won’t be overly recipe-reliant as cooks. “You’re not learning to make one dish, you’re learning how to make hundreds of dishes with those basic skills,” Tranchemontagne said.

Rose Gilchrist, 19, ladles chili into bowls while Ethan Cook, 14, waits to sprinkle the bowls with cheese at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“If you have that fundamental base of organization and preparedness, then you can freestyle and you don’t have to just adhere to a recipe, you can kind of have fun with it,” Waybright said.

In the fall, My Place opened a second teen center in Biddeford inside the former St. Andre’s Church, allowing them to begin helping youths in York County as well. The new location also has a restaurant training program.

“We’re always thinking about the kids – who they are now, and who are they going to become as adults,” Dwyer said. “We give them life and job skills so that in the future, as adults, they have the tools to provide for themselves, and they will never have to experience hunger again.”

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