By Tate Mikkelsen and Sarah Sanchez
Meg Rosario Garcia, a 21-year-old culinary student in Puerto Rico, longed to find an internship as a pastry chef at a U.S. mainland restaurant. To pay for travel, she made sandwiches in a grocer’s deli, earning just $50 a week.
But Hurricane Maria dashed her hopes in September 2017. The massive storm left devastating damage across the island. Trees and boulders blocked roads, stranding Rosario Garcia and mountain dwelling neighbors from relief efforts.
“We didn’t get a lot of help from the government since not a lot of people live there, so it wasn’t a priority,” she said. Some parts of Puerto Rico are still without power.
A bit of relief arrived when George Huger, owner and head chef of Lexington’s Southern Inn, heard about the storm.
“I was sitting at home one day drinking coffee watching the news, and I had this grand idea that these people were actually American citizens and they could come to the United States,” Huger said.
His previous attempts to bring chefs from other countries were thwarted by the federal immigration laws. Huger went to Puerto Rico to interview potential candidates and met Rosario Garcia.
“We’re always looking for someone who is expressing interest and being positive about their other work experiences,” as well as personal goals, said Huger, who offered the internship to Rosario Garcia. She arrived in Lexington last June with two suitcases and $300 in emergency funds, raised from selling her rare Yu-Gi-Oh cards, part of a Japanese game.
“I would have never been able to do this without George,” she said. “He’s helped with everything like airfare and rent.”
The intern program includes farm visits, so the budding chefs can learn about the source of restaurant’s raw ingredients. Another lesson is growing seasonal produce, a new thing for students from Puerto Rico, which has tropical weather with average temperatures of 85 degrees year-round.
“I think it’s important for them to go someplace for a couple of days and by going at different times through the year she’s able to familiarize herself with all these different creations,” Huger said.
Rosario Garcia said her typical work days start at 8 a.m. with food preparations, then working the line from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. She often stays after her shift ends to help any co-workers with their duties.
Rosario Garcia receives a housing subsidy, salary and health insurance. She’s even saving some money, something she could never afford in Puerto Rico.
Huger hopes Rosario Garcia will inspire another culinary student to intern at the Southern Inn. Additionally, Huger is working with Dabney S. Lancaster Community College and state officials to launch similar apprenticeship programs.
Jerry Nay, member of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, formed a 10-member committee to help kick-start the Puerto Rican Scholarship Fund. The committee has raised $23,000 to fund future internships.
“We don’t want the people in Puerto Rico to think we are taking over their students,” Nay said. “We’re making a study abroad program, but we’re going to call it ‘Study on the Mainland.’”
“I’m tired of cooking,” Huger joked. “We want to help increase culinary education in this area, but we also want to create a pipeline for ourselves.”
Rosario Garcia said she will miss the people she’s met here after returning home in June, saying, “I’ve managed to make really good connections with them.”
Rosario Garcia hopes to eventually open her own bakery in Puerto Rico using the skills she learned at Southern Inn, such as making her favorite dessert – Pecan Pie.