Ken Viera didn’t start out expecting to be a cook.

Until his 50s, the Rochester resident was a furniture maker, working with his son to produce furniture for local mill stores.

Then, in one week, he lost nearly everything when the mill stores closed and his son was killed in a motorcycle accident. He tried to find work, but at 59, with years of being self-employed, he found it hard to even get a call back from potential employers.
He was beginning to feel desperate when he went to his local Senior Center in Rochester looking for help and they asked, ‘Can you cook?’

He said yes. “Yes, I can.”

It’s hard to say who was luckier that day in 2019.

Viera, who became employed through Coastline’s Senior Community Service Employment Program which pays for older workers to learn new skills while working for host agencies.

The Rochester community who got a skilled cook who brought humor and a love for people to the breakfast café operating in the town’s Senior Center.

Or SCSEP, which was able to help a talented worker over age 55 learn and use new skills and transition into paid employment when he might otherwise not have been given a chance.

Karyl Ryan, director of the SCSEP program, called Viera an example of what SCSEP does best and the Rochester COA where he works, an ideal host agency. The program matches individuals and agencies and pays for their work with the expectation that they will develop skills and be able to find employment and/or be hired by the agency.

“We’re just proud of him,” Ryan said of Viera. “We really are. We hold him up as an example of how well this program works.”

The town of Rochester took that final step with Viera in January, officially making him a town employee for 19 hours a week. They plan to increase that number to 20 to give him benefits, when the next budget cycle begins in July, COA Director Eric Poulin said.

“We just fulfilled what you’re supposed to do,” Poulin said about the hiring decision. “Hopefully everybody else is going to do that too.”

“But also Kenny has just worked out tremendously for us,” he added.

For his part, Viera takes his position seriously…and not so seriously.

As head chef, he runs a group of volunteers who bring their own big hearts to the job. But it also means he has a new staff each day with their own ways of working. His days start early and by 5:15 a.m. he’s at the cafe making muffins and prepping food.
It’s a community effort and the early arrivals often pitch in and help set up tables, large circular ones that seat eight and are designed to help people socialize more easily.

“People pull together so strongly here,” Viera said. “Everybody helps each other. People who are here eating get up and help too.”
Volunteer and COA board member, Sue Norton, praised Viera for his culinary skills and personality and said he is a huge part of the café’s success which brought in $36,000 in profit last year to help support COA programming.

“He’s great to work with. He’s got a sense of humor,” she said.

Viera made the chef role his own, combining a talent for cooking, a love of trying new dishes, and a desire to help others. He’s not above bringing a meal out of the kitchen himself, sometimes with a humorous explanation for why the dish isn’t perfect.

He works the grill with two spatulas in his hands, one for the eggs and one for the blueberry pancakes, and has, on occasion, accidentally switched them, getting blueberry juice on someone’s eggs.

When that happens, Viera said he likes to deliver the eggs to the table to explain the mishap, telling the person not to worry, it might just be a little bit of mold on their eggs.

“Sometimes they really believe me,” he said laughing, then adding, “I love talking with people. We have a good time.”