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Setting the table for opportunity

Catering service to provide ServSafe certification to aspiring young chefs
Chef/Owner Matt Zacek of Z’s Catering and BBQ in North Liberty. Zacek opened his business to provide aspiring young chefs real-world kitchen experience and ServSafe certification through catering events in the Corridor. His first six-week course, as part of the Worth Our Weight 2 program, will begin in January 2019. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– Matt Zacek always had a passion for cooking, but for decades never realized it beyond a family pastime.
“I’ve always had this ability to take an empty pantry and make a meal out of it,” he remarked. That is until about five years ago while watching an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The show featured a non-profit restaurant in California called Worth Our Weight, which serves as a culinary apprentice program for at-risk kids.
“It really struck a cord with both my wife and I as something we would really like to do,” Zacek recalled.
So much so that last December he left a 35-year career in sales to enroll in the culinary program at Kirkwood Community College. The move has allowed the former salesman to round out his knowledge and set the table for his own culinary objective.
Zacek has since brought the spirit of the California-based program to North Liberty, calling it Worth Our Weight 2. The scholarship program will provide an opportunity for at-risk kids to enter the culinary industry and find employment or go on to post-secondary education.
“We’ll get them ServSafe qualified so they can add that to a resume, which will really make them marketable to go out and get a job in food service, as well as teach them a lot of skills of how to cook,” he explained.
The idea offered a means for the aspiring chef to channel his longtime passion for the culinary arts for a good cause, but he realized he needed an underlying platform to facilitate the program.
“We formed a non-profit, but we really need a for-profit to kind of feed it, as well as give the kids somewhere to go practice their skills and see a real catering event, work at a real wedding, that type of thing. So we started Z’s Catering and BBQ.”
The full-service catering business, which incorporates Zacek’s love of smoked meats, opened this summer with a fully-equipped prep kitchen located at Nathan Avenue. The ServSafe instructor continues to broaden his culinary skills set, having recently spent two weeks in Spain learning regional cooking with the Kirkwood program.
In the absence of culinary education at the high school level, Zacek saw a need for local youth to have an outlet like Worth Our Weight 2. “I’ve got two teenagers that can burn water,” he quipped. “As far as teaching them how it works in a restaurant environment, there really isn’t a lot out there to do that other than on the job.”
And his six-week program sets out to do just that. Training is expected to begin in January and will likely finish around spring break. While the scholarship program will be offered for at-risk kids, a paid version will also be available to those interested.
“It’s (for) anybody that wants kind of a kick-start into that industry,” Zacek cited. “My focus, obviously, is going to be on high school kids, but there’s a lot of early 20s out there that are kind of wandering and don’t know where they want to go.”
Each day will have class work centered around ServSafe, as well as a dish the students will be taught to prepare. The program will start with basic knife skills and work across a broad range of cooking styles, including baking, grilling and frying.
“It’s one thing to teach it; it’s another thing to have paying customers that you’re looking in the face and you’re presenting your food or presenting the food of the company to,” Zacek stressed. “We’ve got a couple of weddings and other events already booked for next summer, and that’ll be the first opportunity for the students to be involved in an actual catering event.”
In the meantime, a 90th birthday party, an elder care event and various company picnics are just a few events on Z’s catering schedule as he works solo. Zacek is eager to offer his full-service catering for any setting, from an intimate dinner party to a 500-guest wedding, enlisting Kirkwood students for larger events if needed.
“We have kind of a starter point for menus, but I love to be creative in the kitchen,” he insisted. “If I don’t know how to cook it, I’ve got plenty of resources for someone to teach me how.”
Locals will have a chance to meet the chef at North Liberty Porchfest Saturday, Aug. 11, where he’ll be serving brisket walking tacos and pulled pork parfaits. Zacek also has his sights set on joining the 13th annual North Liberty Blues & BBQ next year.