Worth Our Weight — a well-established institution, after 10 years of teaching culinary skills to at-risk youths and offering delicious meals to the public — is spreading its wings through a new partnership with Paradise Ridge Winery.
In addition to its weekend cafe near Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa, the nonprofit agency is now providing visitors to the Fountaingrove-area wine tasting room the opportunity to purchase pizza baked on-site in a wood-fired oven on Saturday afternoons.
Winery owner Walter Byck said the relationship is an evolving one that will grow and change as opportunities arise. It will soon include a small farm on the property, where Worth Our Weight’s apprentice chefs and servers can grow and source food for their menus.
“It’s just a natural meld with our program,” WOW founder and Executive Director Evelyn Cheatham said Saturday, as budding chef Robb Ledesma produced one handcrafted pizza after another for hungry wine tasters.
The new venture goes by the name Pizza in Paradise, and grew out of Byck’s interest in finding a worthy group to farm about 3 acres of former vineyards that have proven unsuitable for grapes. He had been trying unsuccessfully to work out an arrangement with Santa Rosa Junior College before it came to his attention that Worth Our Weight was interested in finding a place to garden, he said.
Byck, meanwhile, attended a fundraiser for Worth Our Weight at his winery last fall — though he already was familiar with the program — and his connection with Cheatham has since blossomed, he said. With planning for the farm still underway, the outdoor oven once used on weekends by chef John Franchetti, formerly of Rosso Pizzeria, created an opportunity for Worth Our Weight to expand beyond the popular brunch cafe and catering kitchen it operates at 1021 Hahman Drive.
“This seems like a beautiful mix,” he said.
Cheatham, a longtime chef and no-nonsense mentor, created Worth Our Weight to provide tuition-free training and purpose to young people aged 16 to 24 who have faced major challenges in life, perhaps foster care, homelessness, encounters with the criminal justice system or significant family disruptions.
Fourteen to 16 apprentices typically participate at any given time, Cheatham said. They learn professional restaurant service, food preparation and kitchen skills that often lead to employment but also bring the apprentices together into a nurturing, disciplined, respectful setting where they learn to work hard and work together. Some also live in supportive housing next door.
Holly Bacon, 24, who was assisting and serving for Pizza in Paradise on Saturday, said she’s had some restaurant experience but was eager to expand her cooking skills. But Bacon said working with such a tight-knit family of people made it fun.
“I just love it,” she said.
Pizza in Paradise, which opened quietly a few weeks ago, is being shaped largely by Ledesma, a 20-year-old graduate of Cheatham’s program who subsequently spent two years at Kendall-Jackson before returning to Worth Our Weight. Saturday’s offerings included lamb and red pepper pizza, margherita pizza, Vietnamese-inspired báhn mì pizza, chilled watermelon soup and oysters on the half shell with lemon aioli and caviar.
But Byck is sure Ledesma, who moved north from Southern California to pursue his love of cooking and approached Cheatham after hearing her being interviewed, is a prodigy, an “amazing talent” just launching a long career.