Rebecca Pendergrass loves to cook. So last November when she won a scholarship to obtain a certificate in culinary arts from Livingstone College, she was elated.
“Being a participant in Livingstone College’s culinary arts program has really opened a lot of doors for me,” said Pendergrass of Salisbury. “There was a lot that I had learned on my own about cooking before starting the program, but now I’m learning so much more.”
In what was billed as a Thanksgiving Extravaganza, Livingstone College’s staff, faculty and students served a Thanksgiving meal to 25 area families last Nov. 20 and gave two lucky recipients a scholarship with the promise of a job at an area restaurant or hotel with which the college has a relationship. The Thanksgiving Extravaganza was the brainchild of Livingstone College President Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr., and Pendergrass has been working as a cook at The Country Club of Salisbury since Aug. 9.
“She is absolutely working out,” said Antwaun Thompson, Country Club general manager. “She’s a natural and knows what she’s doing. She’s kind of taking on a leadership role, which is what the chef’s looking for. She’s training a new employee…which is an indication of how quickly she learns.”
Thompson said he’s glad Livingstone has the Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts Program, which is run by Vivian Ray, a veteran in the hospitality management industry.
“Without question, Livingstone has a good program,” Thompson said. “Vivian Ray has done a great job. We hope we’ll have a long-lasting relationship with the college. It’s good when students learn not only in class but also get to apply what they’ve learned in the real world. We’re very fortunate to have Rebecca and hope she’s here with us for a long time. All the staff love her, and they especially like her go-getter attitude. She’s the first employee to come in under our new executive chef, David Thomas, and he’s taken personal responsibility for getting her trained…”
Ray said she’s proud of Pendergrass, who is on target to become the first graduate of Livingstone College’s Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts Program, which offers degrees and certificates. That Pendergrass is already getting kudos for the work she’s doing at The Country Club of Salisbury doesn’t surprise her.
“Rebecca has demonstrated a willingness to learn from day one,” Ray said. “Although she’d already worked in the food industry prior to winning the scholarship, she didn’t come to our program acting as though she knows everything. She’s dependable and hardworking, and I’m just thankful that Dr. Jenkins had the foresight to offer her a scholarship because I have no doubt as word gets around about Rebecca and about our program, more students are going to want to come to Livingstone to be a part of it.”
Pendergrass, a mother of three, cried last November when her name was announced as one of the scholarship recipients. She had lost her husband, Nathan Pendergrass, just 16 months earlier.
“Hearing my name called out that night is something I’ll never forget,” Pendergrass said. “I remember the exact date and everything. It has been a life changer for me and my children, ages 11, 7 and 5. I’m scheduled to graduate from the program and receive my certificate in May 2014. So far I have a 4.0 GPA, and hopefully I can finish with that.”
Though cooking is her first love, Pendergrass was working at a Rent-A-Center before getting hired at The Country Club of Salisbury. She credits Livingstone and Ray with helping her land a job in her chosen profession and said Thompson “is amazing to work for.”
“Being enrolled at Livingstone College has opened a lot of doors for me,” Pendergrass said. “And there are just so many good things I can say about Mrs. Ray. She’s helped me network myself, and I actually did a radio interview back in June here in Salisbury and she was there with me for that. They were asking me questions about the program and my scholarship and how I’ve developed.”
Cooking is nothing new to Pendergrass. She prepared her first meal, spaghetti and garlic bread, at age 9.
“I started cooking in earnest after leaving home at age 17,” Pendergrass said. “I had just had my daughter, and that’s when I really started cooking because I was on my own. People always tell me my food is good, and hearing that makes me feel good about myself. I consider food a gateway that brings people together.”
Originally from Georgia, Pendergrass said her specialty is soul food but she also enjoys cooking Italian cuisine.
Since she enrolled in Livingstone’s culinary arts certificate program, she has gotten some good experience. Earlier this year she was among several Livingstone students who worked a benefit concert for Rowan Helping Ministries on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I had to come up with a menu,” Pendergrass recalled. “I had to assign people their jobs and do food planning and prep. There were so many things I had to do just for that specific event.”
And the menu? Irish cream chicken stuffed potatoes, Irish potato salad, Brie cheese and stuffed baby redskin potatoes.
Pendergrass, 28, said if she wasn’t enrolled in Livingstone’s culinary arts certificate program she’d probably be doing hair and makeup. But she’d much rather be working with food.
“My ultimate goal is to be an executive chef in my own establishment,” she said. “Of course I know that’s a long-term goal, but by this time next year I hope to be a chef at someone’s restaurant.”