From Culinary School to Community Advocacy: Portrait of a Non-Traditional Food Career

Nov 8, 2013

From Culinary School to Community Advocacy: Portrait of a Non-Traditional Food Career

An education in culinary arts doesn't always end with a restaurant career. Ask Ama Shambulia, Program Director of West End Community Garden and 2004 Culinard graduate.

Shambulia certainly didn't get to culinary school by any traditional path. Close to her 40th birthday, she found herself at what she describes as a "critical crossroad" personally. Change was ahead, and Shambulia was waiting for the right opportunity.

Food had always been a big part of her life, from family affairs to catering and volunteer work. While Shambulia received positive feedback, particularly for the great flavors she produced as a vegetarian, she had never considered food as a career path.

"Culinard (the culinary institute of Virginia College in Birmingham, Ala.) was in its early stages, and seeing their advertisements placed the school in my path, " she said. "It was one of those synchronistic moments. Food was one thing I had always done, and I decided to go ahead and formalize that."

She began her education shortly afterward, and relished her time in school. "There was a fullness based on the broad experience of the chefs," she said. "There was time to get to know them as they walked us through every aspect of food." Shambulia left with the affirmation that her passion was whole and natural foods, and this should be her focus.

For five years after graduation, Shambulia worked independently as a personal chef, serving people with health challenges by preparing meals that were both in line with their dietary needs and tasty.

Just like her decision to enter culinary school, her transition to a career in gardening and community service came naturally. "When I moved to the West End area, I started a garden in my backyard," she said. "The neighborhood president took note and referred me to Urban Ministry. I started out working with them in 2008 as program director, on a volunteer basis."

From Culinary School to Community Advocacy: Portrait of a Non-Traditional Food Career

That experience has blossomed into a full time career for Shambulia, who led the effort to transform a cast off city lot into a working organic garden. Now at the end of its fifth growing season, West End Community Garden prides itself on top quality produce, well kept garden space, and an incredible team.

The fruits and vegetables grown are sold at local markets or donated to seniors and other community members. Almost all of the organic soil is made onsite, and the garden employs six part-time team members and paid interns. Shambulia couldn't be more proud of the progress. "I can't say enough about the team that we have. We are truly in and of the community."

Part of that community outreach includes the annual Collard Green Cook Off, held in October. "This year, we had tremendous turn out," Shambulia said. "What started out as an intimate community event to celebrate the year's work has grown to great participation from within and without."

More than 400 people came to sample the work of community entrants and professional chefs alike. Unique entries included a raw collard green, Indian influenced greens and even collard green cornbread.

Looking back on her path to a non-traditional culinary career, Shambulia leaves us with a bit of advice for those seeking their own niche in the food world. "Food is broad. Explore the possibilities. Whatever your passion is beyond cooking, find a way to incorporate it. My passion is community, so I married food with community.

In her words, "The restaurant model is a very small entity of the food world." Think big!

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