The expression on Quinn Saunders’ face when he told everybody he got the job at Wegmans said all you need to know about F Bites, a budding initiative by a local celebrity chef to help inner-city youth find their way around the kitchen and in life.
Saunders’ relationship with longtime chef Bobby Anderson, a one-time contestant on the popular show “Hell’s Kitchen,” began two years ago, when Anderson spoke at the Emerson School of Hospitality downtown, which Saunders attended.
His life has changed a lot since then. Saunders, 18, graduated, joined the Army and is now in the Reserves. In the process, he eluded the pull from the street life of the West Side environment in which he was raised.
So you can understand why his grin stretched ear-to-ear when he thanked Anderson at a recent event for getting him this far and for helping him nail down that cashier position.
“It’s not easy to get these kids to show up on time to school,” said Ronald E. Cunningham, a longtime truancy officer in Niagara Falls who first met Anderson when Anderson was a child, “but they’re never late for their chance to cook.”
Anderson, 43, created F Bites four years ago in Niagara Falls, his hometown, targeting low-income neighborhoods.
It’s a nonprofit culinary vocational program where at-risk city youth between the ages of 8 and 18 are taught soft skills required to be successful in any line of work, especially hospitality.
The main offering through the program is a six-week culinary course, where students learn about food preparation and healthy eating in a mock restaurant setting.
“The ‘F’ in F Bites stands for food, flavor, fun, fundamentals — all things we teach through our program,” said Whitney Walker, director of development for F Bites.
So far, more than 100 kids have passed through the program. Some have gone on to jobs at Sheraton at the Falls, Statler City, Seneca Niagara Casino and other companies outside hospitality, Anderson said.
“I must get two calls every day for references,” he said.
Several months ago, the Buffalo Police Athletic League partnered with F Bites to bring some of Anderson’s programming to the Buffalo area.
That led to his newest endeavor, a youth culinary experience show at Canalside where students showcase their cooking skills by whipping up free samples for passersby.
The weekly event, called “The 20/20 with F Bites,” takes place between noon and 1 p.m. each Tuesday through Aug. 26.
The Niagara Falls version of the event runs at the same times every Thursday at Old Falls Street.
Along with cooking demonstrations and free food samples, the event incorporates live entertainment, fitness challenges and trivia contests. It is free and open to the public.
Modie Cox, executive director of the Buffalo PAL, said the organization sought diversity in its offerings, something F Bites brings to the table.
“What I was amazed with was how (Anderson) had all those kids working together,” Cox said. “Getting kids from all different backgrounds, all different shapes, colors, coming together for this cooking class to accomplish one goal, and that’s to make this meal for others or to learn how to eat healthier themselves.”
Anderson thinks he gets results because he relates well to his students.
Growing up on 13th Street and Packard Road in Niagara Falls, he said, he didn’t quite fit in.
“For me to make it out of there, I had to break the rules,” Anderson said. “Cooking has really been good to me. It changed my life completely, way before ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ ”
At 16, Anderson ran away to Toronto and stumbled upon his first restaurant job washing dishes.
He came back to Western New York nine months later and began cutting his teeth in the industry, working for hotels and restaurants.
Anderson eventually worked his way up to jobs in places such as the Hyatt Regency Hotel, E.B. Green’s Steakhouse, Shanghai Reds and as an executive chef at Wegmans on Amherst Street, where Saunders now works.
But Anderson’s big break — and the early idea for F Bites — came when he was chosen as a contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2008.
Forty-five days exposed to the volatile on-air personality of world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay would change anybody’s life, for better or worse.
But Anderson said Ramsay, whose homeless brother has long struggled with a heroin addiction, had a more compassionate side off the air, and the two shared in a number of heart-to-hearts before Anderson was eliminated in the 11th episode.
“He actually has a passion for people,” Anderson said. “That’s what Gordon Ramsay is all about. He strips you down because that’s what you need and then he builds you back up. You wanted him to yell at you.”
Those conversations influenced Anderson to change his outlook upon returning to Western New York.
After spending time as a chef at one of Ramsay’s restaurants in Los Angeles, he returned home to a job at Hyde Park Steakhouse, devoting himself to a healthier lifestyle – eating better and doing volunteer work.
He lost 85 pounds in less than a year and decided the last thing Buffalo needed was another chef running a gourmet restaurant. So he turned his attention to helping kids in the same way Ramsay guided him.
“It’s not about teaching them how to chop or teaching them how to make a flower out of a carrot, or whatever,” Anderson said. “I’m teaching them leadership skills, soft skills. If they go to an interview, look them in the eye, firm handshake, put your cellphone away, pull your pants up. And they learn that through this program.”
In the future, Anderson hopes to add a re-entry portion to his program to help convicted criminals return to civilian life and find restaurant jobs.
He is also seeking a permanent location to teach the F Bites course, which now operates in various community centers around Niagara Falls and Buffalo.