Gadsden student joins Auburn EAGLES program


Photo: Gadsden City High School student Chris Underwood stands in the kitchen of the Beautiful Rainbow Cafe, where he works as a chef. Underwood was recently selected to participate in Auburn University’s EAGLES program. (Emma Kirkemier/Messenger)


By Emma Kirkemier, News Editor

Update 02-20-2023: Beautiful Rainbow Café is raising money to fund the $5,000 deposit needed by March 1 for Underwood to secure his spot in the EAGLES program. Visit to donate. 

Chris Underwood is a Gadsden City High School student-athlete, an employee of the Beautiful Rainbow Café and, most recently, a member of Auburn University’s EAGLES program.

The Education to Accomplish Growth in Life Experiences for Success program, or EAGLES, offers a comprehensive transition program for select students with intellectual disabilities.

Underwood, currently a senior at GCHS, will join the fall 2023 cohort in August, making him one of nine students who were offered admission and accepted.

The selection process has several stages, culminating in an on-campus interview.

“(Underwood) got selected as one of the finalists and had to record a video about his day-to-day life, and then they called him down for a face-to-face interview,” explained City of Gadsden District 5 Councilman Jason Wilson at a recent council meeting. “He got the news [recently] that he was accepted into the program.”

Underwood was excited when he learned he’d been accepted.

“I was really proud of myself,” he said.

Underwood is passionate about his work as a chef, which he hopes to continue at Auburn.

The Auburn University College of Education describes EAGLES as “a two or four-year campus experience to help students achieve their employment and independent living goals upon successful completion of the program.”

While EAGLES is a non-degreed program, it does allow students to take classes from various concentrations on Auburn’s campus. Underwood plans to take courses from Auburn’s Culinary Science Center, focusing especially on pastries.

“The carrot cake is very famous, and he (Underwood) makes it,” said Beautiful Rainbow Café Director Chip Rowan. “It’s very well-known in town. He’s known for that, but he actually can cook everything on the menu, plus more. He’s always creating new and innovative recipes. So that’s one reason that he chose to look at the EAGLES program in Auburn, is because of the culinary school.”

Underwood and his family, along with Rowan, toured the university’s new culinary facility, which hosts multiple cooking labs, during their time on campus for EAGLES interviews.

“It was great,” Underwood said. “It’s got a lot of restaurants.”

Rowan added that in addition to its several restaurants, the facility also has a café, a pastry lab and a sommelier lab.

“I started hearing about the program and looking into it and then found out how great it is,” said Rowan. “I was thinking, ‘Who would be perfect for that?’ To me, it was Chris. So we started talking about it, and he started getting interested.”

Rowan claimed that Underwood has both the ambition and the natural talent for culinary work.

“He has the mind of a chef because he’s always tweaking things and making them better, and he’s very particular about plating,” Rowan said.

Underwood enjoys making everything on the menu, even experimenting with new recipes like his caramel baked apple dessert, but he is especially proud of his carrot cake.

“I like all the dishes — the quiche, the Southwestern sweet potato, crab cakes, the rice cakes, quesadilla, lasagna,” he said. “(For the carrot cake) I added some orange zest to it and some orange extract to it. And then sometimes, I squeeze some orange juice in there.”

According to Rowan, these experiments have only “improved” the recipes in question. Underwood also hopes to one day follow in his teacher’s footsteps as a business owner.

“It’s always been my dream to open a café,” Rowan said. “That’s his dream, too.”

The Beautiful Rainbow Café got its start several years ago with a hands-on gardening project Rowan incorporated into the curriculum for his own middle school special education students.

The project blossomed into a summer program at Litchfield Middle School that taught culinary skills to disabled students. In 2017, the kitchen moved to the Gadsden Public Library and officially opened for business under its current name as a fully vegetarian café with some vegan options.

“It’s been almost exactly six years since we opened,” Rowan said. “We opened Valentine’s Day 2017.”

Rowan still teaches a traditional special education class during first block at Gadsden City High School, but he spends the remainder of his day running the café. From the beginning, the project grew out of Rowan’s love for gardening and cooking combined with his passion for helping special needs students reach their full potential.

“This is considered a co-op class, and it’s a work-based learning program,” he said. “The governor just chose us as the best in the state. It’s affiliated with the schools, so the students get a co-op credit. And if they work enough hours, then we pay them by the hour, minimum wage or more. Since Chris is a manager, he gets more.”

In 2021, Governor Kay Ivey honored the Beautiful Rainbow Café as the Best Work-Based Learning Program in Northeast Alabama.

Students come in shifts throughout the day, with most staff working the lunch rush. Rowan explained that the time students spend at the café is often dictated by their other schoolwork. Underwood is finished with almost all of his senior coursework, so he works from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

All café employees are required to earn a ServSafe food handler certification, but Underwood went beyond that and passed the ServSafe managing test as well.

“He’s expected to act like a manager in the sense that he (guides the staff),” Rowan said. “I tell the other students if I’m unavailable or my assistant is unavailable, talk to Chris. And they do. He’s a stickler, too. If you’re not doing something right; he will make sure it gets fixed.”

Rowan praised Underwood’s leadership and judgement in addition to his culinary prowess.

“We make vegan crab cakes, and he’s in charge of them because they’re complicated,” Rowan said. “It’s a serious judgement call to know when they’re just the right color, and I don’t have to worry about him doing it. He kind of knows by looking and feeling, and he can just do it. I am a good cook, so I know what that’s like. But it’s very hard to teach it. You can’t teach it; he just has it.”

Underwood said he enjoys both the management and purely culinary aspects of his job, but he takes a lot of responsibility as a manager to make sure kitchen tasks are performed well.

“I worry about the temperatures that we have to cook food to,” he said. “I worry about how to store food, store it correctly in the refrigerator or freezer, how to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact.”

Underwood often instructs other students in the kitchen, as well.

“I like teaching,” Underwood said. “I showed my friend how to [decorate the cakes]. I was going to Auburn that day, so Chef Chris (Wood, staff member and culinary professional) showed me. He took a picture of him icing my cake, and he was doing it the same way I was doing it.”

Rowan said many other students seem to look up to Underwood and emulate him, including the aforementioned friend, who he identified as GCHS student Reginald Lindsey. Lindsey and Underwood both play for Gadsden City’s varsity special Olympics basketball team, which was undefeated until a February 8 loss to Anniston by only two points.

“Our mission here is usually to get the students employed, and that is what we generally do,” Rowan said. “But with Chris, it just seemed like with him having this talent, which he truly does, that we would look at other things, and that’s when Auburn came up.”

Underwood will be part of the sixth-ever cohort in the EAGLES program, moving into a dorm on campus. He said he will miss his working in the café, but Underwood has plenty to look forward to at Auburn.

“I think we’ll be shutting down when Chris leaves,” Rowan joked.

Underwood said he doesn’t anticipate the college transition being too difficult, but he knows his parents and siblings will miss him, especially his mother.

“She was telling me yesterday, ‘I’m just thinking about how I’m going to miss you,’” he said.

Regardless of any college nerves, Underwood knows his hometown is incredibly proud of him.

“It’s just a wonderful story,” said Wilson. “I remember talking to Chip Rowan about his Beautiful Rainbow Program probably 10 years ago, and it was a few of us local restaurateurs giving him a few bucks to build some raised beds at the middle school. And it has grown into this nationally recognized, award-winning program. Then to come all the way to be able to have a student that’s going to continue his career at Auburn University … I just can’t tell y’all how proud I am.”

EAGLES Program Director Betty Patten reached out to The Messenger provide further information on the program.

“I really think this will be a great opportunity for Chris (Underwood) to spread his wings,” Patten said. “(Gadsden City) Schools and the Beautiful Rainbow Café did a great job of setting him up to be able to fly. We are thrilled to have him.”

Correction: Students accepted into the EAGLES program are not ranked by achievement, as a previous version of this article mistakenly stated, but are offered admission into that year’s cohort alongside their peers.

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