Photo Essay: The Next Generation of DC Central Kitchen Chefs | Civil Eats

Photo Essay: The Next Generation of DC Central Kitchen Chefs

After three decades of feeding and training low-income residents for jobs in restaurants, the nonprofit is about to dramatically expand its reach.

Five of DC Central Kitchen's trainees. Photos by Jake Price

Five of DC Central Kitchen’s latest class of trainees. (Photos by Jake Price)

This week, students in the 130th culinary job training class at DC Central Kitchen will graduate surrounded by family, friends, and the staff that over the past few months taught them to julienne vegetables as well as overcome daunting personal challenges. While the group of 10 range in age from their 20s to 50s, all have lived in poverty and struggled to find steady employment after a wide range of experiences including incarceration, homelessness, and struggles with substance abuse. Now, they’ll take their new skills and confidence and head out into the culinary world to find jobs.

At DC Central Kitchen, new beginnings are not uncommon, and the organization itself is also at a turning point. While the graduates celebrate, a construction crew is putting the finishing touches on the organization’s sprawling new $35-million headquarters. The new space is just 2.5 miles away, but feels like a different world, from the cramped basement beneath the capital’s largest homeless shelter, where it has operated for the last three decades.

“This takes everything we’ve done for years and allows us to do it better [and] bigger. It also allows us to bring to life some of the dreams we’ve had for years about what’s possible and the new ways we can use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, minds, and build communities,” said CEO Michael Curtin, during a recent tour of the new space. “But I would be reluctant to call it DC Central Kitchen 2.0, because I think we’re well into the double digits by now in terms of reinventing ourselves.”

Robert Egger, a thought leader who has been called the “father of social enterprise,” started the organization in 1989. While food banks focused on the immediacy of hunger and advocacy organizations worked on political change to address food insecurity’s root causes, Egger’s vision was to feed people in need while simultaneously giving them tools to escape poverty. From the beginning, a culinary job training program was at the core. Trainees, Egger thought, could prepare meals for hungry people while learning a trade that would help them find steady employment. More than 2,000 people have graduated from the 12-week program to date; students attend for free, and DC Central Kitchen covers the roughly $15,000-per-student cost.

Lavon Woods, Roshae McCraw, and Dominic Rebudan.

DCK trainees Lavon Woods, Roshae McCraw, and Dominic Rebudan.

Gregory Lilly is a perfect example. He grew up in D.C. during the ‘80s crack epidemic, and violence and mass incarceration permeated his neighborhood. He dropped out of school in ninth grade, was incarcerated at 19, and didn’t see the outside world for 18 and a half years. When he was released from prison, he found DC Central Kitchen’s job training program, which later landed him a job as a sous chef at Whole Foods. Working there eventually made him realize his talents were better suited to communicating than cooking.

Gregory Lilly.

Gregory Lilly.

Now, as the workforce development specialist for recruitment and student engagement, he’s one of a team that’s leading the organization into a bold new future. “I lead with my story,” said Lilly, who provides guidance to new applicants and trainees. “But my whole thing is, ‘I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I’m just here to give you options.’ At the end of the day, that’s what we all need.”

At the new HQ, called the Klein Center, DC Central Kitchen’s goal is to expand enrollment in the program by 150 percent. And many of the trainees will go on to work in the expanded production kitchen, which will be able to provide 25,000 healthy meals a day (up from 11,000 currently) to low-income D.C. residents in shelters and public schools. Other graduates will work at the organization’s two existing cafes and a third that will also open soon in the Klein Center.

A render of the new DC Kitchen facility. (Photo courtesy of DCK)Construction underway at the DCK facility.

Left: A render of the new DC Kitchen facility. (Photo courtesy of DCK) Right: Construction underway.

Some of those graduates will be members of class 130, who spoke to Civil Eats in early August. As they prepared for the final part of the program, an externship, many were moved to talk not just about “knife skills” but about “life skills” they’ve worked on during self-empowerment classes with instructor Jeffrey Rustin.

When the students start the program, Rustin said, he gives them a list of more than 30 things that they might be struggling with and has them pick three to work on. “There’s a lot of pain, a lot of trauma,” he said. “If you see what some of these students went through to get here, it’s just amazing. And sometimes they’re trying to be the first one in their family to graduate from anything.”

The students often don’t like or trust him at first, said Rustin, but many open up and progress toward managing problems as deep as substance abuse and family guilt. “We cry in that room!” he said. (And although Rustin seems to move through the world with unflinching optimism and hard-nosed compassion, in telling a story about one student, he also shed tears.)

Ablawa Ajavon—or Chef Mimi, as the students refer to her—training in the kitchen.Chef Ablawa Ajavon—or Chef Mimi, as the students refer to her—teaching knife skills to Donita Martin.Traes Caesar at work in the DC Kitchen.

Left and center: Chef Ablawa Ajavon—or Chef Mimi, as the students refer to her—teaching knife skills; right: Traes Caesar at work in the kitchen.

A skeptic might wonder whether the program’s design asks people from D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods to overcome obstacles that are systemic in nature instead of fixing the underlying political and societal injustices that perpetuate cycles of poverty and violence. Lilly nods along with that observation. “I think that we all understand that we’re putting a lot on them,” he says. “But there’s so much at stake, and we don’t have time to waste. Not a moment.”

A fresh start, then, is something he can offer someone on the spot, without waiting for systems to change. Options—at the end of the day, that’s what we all need.

Even CEO Curtin said he was “broken” when he first found Egger and DC Central Kitchen. “I had a career that didn’t work out the way I had dreamed and imagined it would, and I was terrified,” he explained. “This is really a place where we want to break down these stereotypes and old ideas, not only about charity, food, and hunger but about the power people have to create not only change, not only their own destiny, but the economic destinies of the community.”

Here, we share snapshots of how the students of the 130th culinary job training class are doing just that.

Billy Chandler.

Billy Chandler.

Billy Chandler

A caseworker at a shelter Chandler was staying at told him about the program. He had been interested in cooking after working at Henry’s Soul Food café, a D.C. institution that also recently added a job-training course.

Chandler is so quiet you have to get very close to hear him, and getting along with everyone in the program was tough for him. Teamwork, he said, was a challenge.

But with the new knife skills he has picked up, he said he’s ready to get to work as a prep cook or a line cook. Someday, he hopes to own a jerk chicken truck.

David Gibson.

David Gibson.

David Gibson

Gibson was incarcerated for more than 28 years. In prison, he was the head cook, preparing meals for 1,800 people at a time. But in the training program, he learned a new kind of kitchen etiquette, he said. “I learned to say, ‘Yes, chef!’” he said, smiling.

But Gibson was also open about how difficult it had been for him to stick with the training due to his struggles with alcoholism. “It’s just so hard not to drink,” he said. His housing situation was contributing to the challenge, so Rustin helped him find new housing, He also gave Gibson new responsibilities to encourage him to stay sober.

The approach worked so well, Gibson doesn’t want to leave. He sees his future path as working for DC Central Kitchen. “The whole experience is just so beautiful,” he said.

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Quenzel Goff

Quenzel Goff.

Quenzel Goff

Grilled chicken, mushrooms, and asparagus. “At home, that’s all. I cook that all day every day,” Goff said enthusiastically, describing his favorite meal.

But like Gibson, over the past several weeks, he’s been working through trauma as much as he’s been chopping and sautéing. Four years ago, his daughter passed away. “I got into trouble a couple of times in the past because I had trouble with my anger,” he said. “It kind of still haunts me to this day, because I wasn’t there for her.”

In Goff’s mind, Rustin’s self-empowerment classes helped him even more than previous attempts at therapy did. “Once I came here and started opening up about my past, it just became more comfortable, and I started trusting,” he said. Now, Goff wants to draw on his passion for cooking for his family and previous experience acting to forge a path for himself. “My long-term goal is to find somewhere I can incorporate acting and food together,” he said.

Pamela Johnson.

Pamela Johnson.

Pamela Johnson

Johnson’s externship at the Ritz Carlton is starting on Monday and her excitement is palpable. “I am ready!” she says, laughing. She loves baking and already sells the treats she makes, like cupcakes and chocolate-covered strawberries, to friends and family. She wants to build on that and rent her own space to open a bakery.

Project Empowerment, a workforce development program for residents with employment barriers including lack of education, history of substance abuse, homelessness, and incarceration, pointed her toward the culinary job training program.

Johnson said she has appreciated learning to portion dishes and breaking down chicken and fish, but she wished there was more baking included. Still, the program “really helped me stay more focused and stop worrying about everything else,” she said. “It helped me leave my drama at home when I came through the door.”

Roshae McCraw.

Roshae McCraw.

Roshae McCraw

At 21, McCraw has already been through a lot, including a year in prison that was the result of a situation involving domestic violence, she said.

She’s also brimming with ideas. “I wanted to be a singer, a painter, a knitter,” she said. “And then I started cooking again.” McCraw said she loved seeing her family enjoy meals she made—like stuffed shells with ground turkey—and when another community organization suggested she apply to the culinary job training program, she decided to do it.

She has been working on communication and expressing herself, which made her realize that her initial plan to open a restaurant wasn’t the right fit. Instead, she wants to fuse art and food in a museum environment. “You’re walking around looking at the exhibits and you can actually taste it,” she said. “That’s my dream career.”

Kenneth McPherson

Kenneth McPherson.

Kenneth McPherson

“I’m a better person,” McPherson says, simply, describing how his time in the job-training program has helped him with things like developing courage and a positive attitude.

Now, he can focus on what he loves: making dishes like fried chicken, baked chicken, mac and cheese, and cabbage, and McPherson is confident he’ll have his own soul food restaurant someday.

Given how much he’s gained through DC Central Kitchen, he also wants to give back to his community. “I want to help others who are less fortunate,” he said.

Dominic Rebudan.

Dominic Rebudan.

Dominic Rebudan

Just three years ago, in 2019, Rebudan arrived from the Philippines. As the only immigrant in the class, one of his challenges has been communicating in English. While he speaks it fluently, he finds it difficult to express himself fully, he said.

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In self-empowerment class, he worked through a more emotional issue: forgiving his mother, who left him behind in their home country when he was a child. Rebudan said he has made significant progress, and his first priority after graduation is helping his mother fix up a house they still have in the Philippines.

Ultimately, though, he wants to use his growing knowledge of American food to open a restaurant that fuses American and Filipino cuisine. “This is my first step to my future,” he said.

Vincent Stewart.

Vincent Stewart.

Vincent Stewart

For Stewart, the third time’s a charm. He started the culinary job training program in class 127 and then again in 128. “I first had my kid, I was struggling,” he said. “I was trying to come up here, but I couldn’t do it. I had to get myself together.”

Now, he’s eager to talk about how his knife skills have improved and is about to start an externship at a hotel restaurant, which will be the last push before graduation. He’s thinking a food truck might be in his future. “[The program] gave me some confidence,” he said.

Lavon Woods.

Lavon Woods.

Lavon Woods

Raising six children of her own has been challenging, but Woods is also thinking about cooking for kids. While she ultimately wants to cook refined versions of Southern comfort food dishes, during the training program, she decided she was interested in trying out school food, first.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I do want to be a chef, but I want to be more than that . . . by working with children and healthy eating,’” she said. She’s already working on getting the paperwork done that will allow her to apply for positions in the D.C. school system.

Zachary Thompson.

Zachary Thompson.

Zachary Thompson

Thompson, who also came to the program through Project Empowerment, liked learning how to break down chicken and fish, but another technique really stuck with him: making cauliflower rice.

The test for ServSafe certification, which quizzes kitchen staff on food safety requirements and practices, was challenging, he said, but worthwhile.

Both will come in handy as he works on getting his idea for a vegan food truck off the ground. “Right now, I’m at the stage where I’m getting all the information, and then I’ll work on the finance part,” he said. “It’s basically having a business model and a business plan. I feel more comfortable now, so I can take the next step.”

Except where noted, all photos © Jake Price.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

Jake Price is a New York City-based photographer and filmmaker. After working as a photojournalist and producer at the BBC and New York Times, he shifted his work to filmmaking and immersive media production. Price’s many projects been awarded by the World Press Photo and have also been displayed internationally. Read more >

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