“The high-quality instruction at UHCHI helped me land a position at one of Chicago’s top hotels. It’s pretty cool that this program is free and accessible for people of color and immigrants. It was challenging, but I felt very supported throughout.”

Raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, Nataliya often had to make meals for herself while her mother traveled for work. Back then, food was just something you appreciated having. She never thought it was something she could make her career.

But things are different now. Today, at 26 years old, Nataliya has gone cooking meals at home to working as one of the youngest cooks at the Ritz-Carlton, Chicago. Yet her route to the grand kitchen is not an ordinary one.

When Nataliya first came to the United States at 19, she didn’t have any professional culinary experience. Instead, with few friends and her family across the ocean, she found herself working a variety of jobs including as a lifeguard and at a gas station to make rent.

This all changed when she married the love of her life. Now, with thoughts of supporting a family and a green card to help find work, Nataliya knew it was time to start building her career. It was a difficult choice to make – it was March 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic made finding a culinary job difficult. But with encouragement from her partner, Nataliya decided to take the leap and search for a job in the industry she loved. She found a position at a neighborhood restaurant. Soon after she heard about the UHCHI Culinary Apprenticeship program from a friend.

Despite the hesitation of balancing the apprenticeship with a full-time job – Nataliya signed up in a heartbeat. “I wanted to learn everything and I wanted to read everything,” she said. “Every day I would come after program, I would do my homework, and I would practice chopping onions and pears at home … It was very challenging, but I felt very supported throughout.”

After the 8-weeks were up, Nataliya’s hard work paid off.  UHCHI connected her with the Ritz-Carlton Chicago to apply for a unionized culinary position. After an interview and a tour of the kitchen, Nataliya was offered the line cook position on the spot.

The job offer at the Ritz came just weeks after war broke out in her home country of Ukraine. Nataliya described being able to share with her family, some of whom are now refugees due to the war, that she is working at the top Ritz Carlton in the country.

Now at the Ritz for three months, is making $24.06 per hour – up from $17 before her UHCHI training. She will soon be eligible for health insurance that covers herself and her wife. According to Nataliya, one of the best things about her UHCHI experience was the ability to enter the workforce trained and debt free.

“It was pretty cool how accessible [UHCHI] was for communities, immigrants, people of color and all sorts of people,” Nataliya states. “That’s the way it should be. It is not like education, which costs thousands of dollars … and you take classes not related to your work.” Instead, Nataliya describes her training as extremely targeted for those aspiring to enter hotel food service.

When asked about what she would tell the next cohort of UHCHI trainees, Nataliya’s advice was simple: it’s not about how much you know, but your willingness to learn. “It’s important when you are a beginner that you learn as much as possible and get into good habits,” she said.

Nataliya’s hard work and willingness to learn has distinguished herself among co-workers, many of whom have decades of culinary experience. “I am even training a guy on a prep shift now,” Nataliya mused. “I definitely feel proud of myself.”

Looking forward, Nataliya has high hopes for her career. With plans to eventually move to Denver and follow her wife to a new job, Nataliya feels confident she can apply to “just about anywhere” that has a kitchen. In time, she plans to use her newfound skills to transition from food service to social service. “Who knows?” Nataliya says. “Maybe one day, I can even be a chef instructor [too].”