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Program is shaping chefs and raising restaurateurs


High school students working in restaurants typically bus tables, mop floors, or wash dishes. And with a little more experience, some may go on to become waiters or act as hosts, but few have the chance to go beyond entry-level positions. The Rochester Youth Culinary Experience aims to change that.

RYCE (pronounced "rice") is a non-profit organization that will provide local students first-hand experience running a restaurant. To train those students to be ready for the job market, RYCE will open a self-sustaining restaurant this June in the Village Gate where the students will run the restaurant with help from an experienced management team.

"We want the kids to have ownership," says Aaron Metras, RYCE vicechair. "We provide some guidance, but we also keep our mouths shut."

Metras and his wife, Kelly, own Salena's Mexican Restaurant, and co-own Nox Cocktail Lounge. RYCE was developed when a lease on the space between their two businesses stipulated that it must be used as a restaurant. After a bit of thinking, Kelly came up with the idea to start RYCE. "We wanted to give back to the community as best we could," Metras says.

RYCE has partnered with East High School, which has a long-standing culinary program. The RYCE restaurant will serve dinner and focus on "Caribbean soul fusion cuisine" based on student-developed recipes. The space will seat around 60 diners and feature an open kitchen. At the end of each year, the restaurant's profits will be distributed to organizations helping to combat childhood hunger in the city.

Eight East High seniors are now working to develop the restaurant. "Everything from the menu to restaurant architecture, how to order supplies, how to price items — they're exposed to it all," Metras says. Even the name is up to the students — "a hotly debated topic."

Dominique Brown is one of the students working with RYCE. Brown has participated in East High's culinary program since his freshman year and will graduate this June. He plans to study hospitality and earn an MBA, and has big goals of launching a chain of hotels and restaurants, and later, a cruise line. Of RYCE, Brown says, "That I have this opportunity, at my age and where I'm at in life, is kind of surreal. I'm doing what I want to do in the future, now."

Once the restaurant has fully launched, up to 25 students will be employed by RYCE from the September of their senior year through the following August. They'll earn $12 an hour and must remain enrolled in their school's culinary program throughout their employment. During the 40-week RYCE program, each student will rotate through different aspects of the business, including running the kitchen, general management, and administrative work.

When they bought Salena's in 2011, "we learned more than we learned in our entire education history," Metras says. "You have to experience it to understand it. It's the only way to get real insight."

Mayor Lovely Warren recently voiced her support for the program. "This path is clear: complete a successful education, be prepared and ready to go to work, [then] find a job that pays a living wage," Warren says. "But achieving and connecting all of these benchmarks has escaped many individuals in countless communities. I support the efforts of the RYCE as it aims to help Rochester youth connect each of these dots with a new entrepreneurial concept."

RYCE is seeking one-time startup funds to build out the restaurant, estimated at $150,000. A Kickstarter campaign to raise $10,000 is currently underway and will close Saturday, March 5. Even if the Kickstarter goal isn't reached, RYCE will go on by seeking additional partnerships, grants, and low-interest loans.

Several businesses and organizations have thrown in their support: Palmer Foods is a primary sponsor, and is assisting students with ordering and inventory processes. Rochester Cares and Rochester Store Fixture have helped develop RYCE's restaurant space. The University of Rochester's Simon Business School is providing infrastructure and ancillary support for an April 9 Fundraising Carnival at to be held at the Village Gate.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Salena's Mexican Restaurant.