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Moving forward by circling back: Pathways new kitchen manager brings education, experience

Chef Neil Ravenna looks to transform Pathways’ dining services. Cory Vaillancourt photo Chef Neil Ravenna looks to transform Pathways’ dining services. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Haywood Pathways Center’s mission has always been to help people from all walks of life get back on their feet, but now for the first time in the organization’s six-year history, it’s taking a bold step into the world of workforce development that could also help alleviate staffing shortages in the region’s hospitality sector. 

The man they’ve chosen for the job seems to have the right skills, on both sides of the line. 

“I grew up with two brothers, and my parents owned a foster home for at-risk kids. So there were 18 other kids and then my two brothers and myself,” said Neil Ravenna. “At a very young age, we had instilled in us a sense of compassion.” 

Originally from Vermont, Ravenna has been involved in the gastronomic world since his first day in high school; he entered a vocational program helmed by a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, and spent the next four years perfecting his chops. Upon graduation at age 17, Ravenna entered the culinary program at Paul Smith’s College in Saranac Lake, New York. 

“It’s right adjacent to Lake Placid, New York, and the Olympics were there in 1980. I graduated high school in 1981 so then the following spring there was still a buzz in the town,” he said. “We used a lot of the facilities that were built for the Olympics. It was pretty cool being up there.”

By age 19 he was working in restaurants in Burlington and Rutland, Vermont and a decade later found himself employed by a Tampa resort. He ended up in Tuscaloosa in 1996, where he served as the executive chef at the University of Alabama. 

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“I was at this antebellum home called the University Club , which sits right on the campus,” he said. “Two-story, fine dining, seven dining rooms, full kitchen. We did weddings — two weddings every Saturday. It’s where the dignitaries and everything would come, and it used to be the governor’s mansion when Tuscaloosa was the capital of Alabama.”

While at Alabama, Ravenna began teaching at Shelton State Community College, where he was asked to write a full curriculum for a culinary arts degree program. Once it was approved by the state, Ravenna became the director of the program. 

“That was an associate of arts degree program, but they also had a certificate program that took folks who were on public assistance, who needed a lift up, who needed a hand, and taught them a trade so that they could get off of public assistance and out into the workforce,” he said. 

One of Ravenna’s tasks was to assess what skills area employers were looking for, so he checked in with 250 restaurants in the five-county Tuscaloosa area. 

“It was basic culinary arts where you could go to an entry-level position in the kitchen. The real things are the simplest things that you would take for granted in the kitchen — your knife skills, what knives to use, what knives not to use on certain tasks, all of your food sanitation and safety issues,” he said. “Everybody that left both programs were ServSafe certified.”

ServSafe is an educational program offered by the National Restaurant Association that teaches food safety to restaurant workers. 

“That was great,” he said, “because in that state you had to have ServSafe certification in the kitchen.” 

Ravenna said he saw real results, and lives changed, because the training at Shelton State gave participants skills that would make them more employable. 

“The best example is a young lady, she was actually in the certificate program,” he said. “She had two children. She came in, got her certificate and went to work at a Salvation Army running their soup kitchen and she did it for years and years and years. Both programs are still up and running and they’ve even built big teaching kitchens and everything. I was there at the beginning when we were working out of classrooms with hot plates.”

Eventually Ravenna moved back to Tampa and accepted a position as a personal chef for a family until he decided to head north. 

“I started to miss Vermont and missed the mountains, and thought North Carolina would be a nice in-between,” he said. “I enjoy winter. I enjoy the cold, but not eight months of it.”

He found what he called “a pretty little restaurant” in Bryson City that was looking for an executive chef and settled in at the Everett Hotel and Bistro, but after a few years felt a change was due. Ravenna said he’s since been working here and there, helping out friends at their own restaurants until starting at Pathways a few weeks ago. 

“I’ve worked in restaurants and resorts and schools and everything like that, but I keep circling back around to this kind of environment where people don’t have the choice of going out to eat and fine dining,” he said. “They have to eat for necessity and to live. To think about somebody who has all kinds of problems that most people don’t think are problems, like where your next meal is coming from, I think I can take my abilities and help that.”

Founded in 2015, Pathways is a former state prison that now serves as home for up to 96 people at a time in three gender-segregated dorms for men, women and families. Pathways’ residents must be a Haywood resident, pass drug screenings, abide by the rules, pitch in with chores and demonstrate progress in dealing with whatever issues — drug abuse, homelessness, unemployment — brought them there if they want to stay for the maximum of six months. After that, they’re expected to make a productive reentry into society. 

But while they’re there, they’ve all gotta eat. 

Usually, Pathways serves dinner seven nights a week to anyone who wants it, including nonresidents. That’s fluctuated with COVID-19 reductions in capacity and accessibility, but breakfast is also served to residents each morning, and sometimes lunches and dinners are packed for residents who leave for work each day. 

Even with the disruption in 2020, Pathways served more than 42,000 meals. That’s around 115 a day. 

Fortunately, Pathways has a small mess hall attached to a full commercial kitchen well stocked with utensils and thousands upon thousands of pounds of food donated each year by grocers, individuals and food bank networks. 

Those supplies are turned into meals most often by volunteer cook teams, usually staffed by churches, civic organizations or other groups of volunteers. The Coronavirus Pandemic disrupted that too, when campus was closed to outsiders last year, and many of the volunteers found other ways to serve their community  and haven’t yet returned. 

That situation was exacerbated further with the recent resignation of the kitchen manager — the glue that brings the volunteer cook teams, the donated food and the diners together. 

“Neil had emailed me a couple months ago and it got stuck down in my email and then our kitchen coordinator resigned,” said Mandy Haithcox, executive director at Pathways. “And then I said, ‘I have this email I need to reply to,’ and here he is.”

Haithcox said she’d actually interviewed Ravenna for the position three years ago, but didn’t have the money to pay him. 

“It just came together,” Ravenna said. “I reached out to her to say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? What’s happening over there?’ I hadn’t talked to her in two-and-a-half years, and it was the same week that the kitchen manager resigned.”

Now, Ravenna will take over the kitchen manager job and oversee the operations of the Holy Cow food truck while applying his teaching-based approach to residents who are looking to acquire valuable skills. 

Ravenna will also be responsible for recruiting and reinvigorating the volunteer cook teams. 

A few of Ravenna’s proposed changes might make that volunteer opportunity more appealing. 

“One of the things that Neil can do is put together a whole dish, so that whoever the cook team is — especially if they have people who don’t know how to cook or they have younger kids or whatever — can just come in and heat it up and serve it and be able to focus more attention on being able to provide community for people and build those relationships,” Haithcox said. 

Volunteers will still be able to fly solo on dinner prep if they wish, but either way they may just walk away with some new kitchen skills of their own — Ravenna said he’d be present during many of the cook team shifts. 

At this stage of his career Ravenna still has a passion for the job, but it’s also clear that the sense of compassion instilled in him while growing up in a home full of foster children hasn’t faded. 

“I get to do all the things that mom said, ‘don’t do,’” Ravenna said. “I get to play with my food. I get to play with fire. I get to play with sharp knives. And those are all things that you’re always told not to do but now I can do all of that and help a whole bunch of people.” 

Leave a comment

8 comments

  • Chef Niel is amazing at his kraft, smart , funny and hard working. Niel will serve Pathways well. Pathways is fortunate to have such a incredible individual.

    posted by Jim Drews

    Sunday, 10/03/2021

  • This brightens my morning and so proud to hear about this, I had the pleasure of working with Chef Neil several years back, and it was a heck of a good experience! Super excited

    posted by MatyRita

    Saturday, 09/25/2021

  • Great article, Neil.

    You served the community well during your tenure at Shelton State.

    posted by Lyda Black

    Saturday, 09/25/2021

  • Sounds like a perfect fit for Pathways! Chef Neil is a compassionate and kind and very smart and a wonderful teacher. Can’t wait to see all the exciting thing to come

    posted by Dawn

    Saturday, 09/25/2021

  • Great review of my chef Neil Ravenna he taught me at Shelton State in both programs and he's great at what he does I'm still cooking‼️ Best of luck to you Mr. Neil "Chef" Ravenna ❤️

    posted by Tynita Richard

    Friday, 09/24/2021

  • Excellent coverage of Neil Ravenna's career and new position. Good luck for Haywood Pathways Center. Neil seems a great match for the Center and residents wanting a new start. His talents are many and the food he turns is amazing.

    posted by Diana Keene

    Friday, 09/24/2021

  • Excellent coverage of Neil Ravenna's career and new position. Good luck for Haywood Pathways Center. Neil seems a great match for the Center and residents wanting a new start. His talents are many and the food he turns is amazing.

    posted by Diana Keene

    Friday, 09/24/2021

  • Neil is an amazing person and a great guy for the job!

    posted by Laurie Hubbard

    Friday, 09/24/2021

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