Trevor Richen, a culinary student at Germaine’s Kitchen and Café, adds sauce. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Trevor Richen, a culinary student at Germaine’s Kitchen and Café, adds sauce. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Germaine’s Kitchen and Café at Catholic Charities of Oregon has come a long way since emeritus board member Lori Irish-Bauman approached Deacon Rick Birkel, executive director, with an idea to combat the lack of employment opportunity for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In 2015 Irish-Bauman recognized a need in Portland for dignified regular employment for individuals with disabilities. She began asking questions and networking with people in the social service field and in business to better understand current conditions and how to create more opportunity. In 2019, Irish-Bauman decided she wanted to start a business designed specifically for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and began working with Catholic Charities of Oregon to bring that dream to fruition.

At the time, Catholic Charities had just finished an agency-wide evaluation and recognized that it could be doing more as an organization to serve people with disabilities. By the time Irish-Bauman reached out to Birkel with her idea, he was eager to collaborate. At Catholic Charities headquarters, the kitchen and dining hall were sitting empty; the pieces for Germaine’s Kitchen and Café began to fall into place.

During the early stages of the program, the Germaine’s team consulted experts in the restaurant industry, social enterprise and social work to inform the program’s design and decide how the innovative idea would connect back to Catholic Charities overall mission.

Training became an important element. Students with disabilities needed to enter the workforce with confidence. This is where Jon Wirtis, executive chef and lead instructor, came into the picture. Since his hiring in May 2021, Wirtis has taken his wealth of education and culinary expertise and brought the program to life.

COVID-19 was in full swing, and restaurants and food service industry businesses were closing. Wirtis wanted to pivot to a culinary training program. During their sessions, students would learn basic aspects of kitchen work in addition to employment skills. Students would learn what it takes to apply, interview, land, and maintain a job, and how to manage income.

Wirtis designed the current 16-week program with intimate hands-on classes designed to build skills, confidence, and independence. From basic safety and sanitation to knife skills, mixing methods, cooking procedures, recipe work, culinary math, and actual meal production, students at Germain’s Kitchen and Café build teamwork and ethics all while serving more than 2,000 meals monthly to families and individuals in the community who are food insecure.

“My two passions are food and community,” said Wirtis. “I believe food – the very thing that sustains our bodies – can also be the foundation of what sustains and transforms our local community.”

Since the program launched in fall 2021, Germaine’s Kitchen and Café graduated its first cohort and will be graduating its second cohort later this month. Catholic Charities staff and supporters say they are proud of these students and what they’ve accomplished for themselves and the service they’ve provided for food insecure neighbors.