05/09/2014 at 02:10 PM EDT
When Michelle Knight was growing up, she would sometimes go door-to-door asking neighbors for ingredients so she could make her younger siblings something to eat. During a troubled childhood, cooking was one of the few things that gave her pleasure.
"My brothers were the ones that told me I should actually become a cook, because my food was so delicious even though we only had salt, black pepper and beans," she tells PEOPLE
. "I still managed to make it presentable to eat."
It has been a year since Knight, along with two other women – Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus
– escaped from their captor, Ariel Castro
, who had kept them locked inside a Cleveland house. For years, she was given rotten burgers and spoiled beans, she writes in her memoir, Finding Me
, which was published Tuesday. "Being hungry just hurts," she says.
In January, Knight decided she wanted to improve her cooking skills and enrolled at Ohio's Cuyahoga Community College's Culinary Arts program. Chef Brandt Evans, executive director of the school's program and owner of Pura Vida restaurant in downtown Cleveland, has been helping her get acclimated.
"Food is life and it's a representation of her new start," says Evans. "My heart went out to her. It was like someone punched me in the gut. I felt so bad. But then I saw her smiling and so cheerful – it made my day and the following days."
For more about Michelle Knight's amazing story and an exclusive excerpt from her memoir,
Finding Me, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now