ST. PETERSBURG — Dignitaries and food enthusiasts from across the Bay area gathered for a special black tie dinner at the Mahaffey Theater here Thursday night.

The six-course dinner, put on by some of the top restaurant chefs from across the area, was a fundraiser to benefit the brand-new St. Petersburg Culinary Center.

The program aims to offer 16 weeks of intensive culinary training free of charge.

“This is an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime,” said St. Petersburg Culinary Center board member Dr. Michael Lynch. “They have all of the support and resources behind them.”

Ray Kennedy is among the 12 at-risk students who make up the school’s first class. He and other students assisted in the preparation of Thursday night’s dinner.

“It gets them off the streets, gives them a trade and that’s what makes our center unique,” said Ted Dorsey, Executive Chef of The Mill Restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg.

Dorsey came up with the idea to assist local troubled kids.

“I think the biggest upside for us is trying to create change in our community,” he said.

At the end of their training many of the students will end up being placed in some of the top restaurants across the Tampa Bay area.

“For me the greatest feeling in the world is being able to teach something that I’m good at and being able to pass that along to someone else who, I know, one day will be very good at this too,” said Dorsey.

Ray has no doubt the program will be a huge success. He dreams of one day opening his own restaurant and perhaps mentoring future young chefs himself.

“I want to make a mold for the generation around us coming up,” said Kennedy. "I want to show them there’s somebody who was raised around us who really did become successful and can show us we can do it as well."