Hack. Hack. Hack.
The tattooed ex-boxer hacked at the cutting board with a 10-inch chef’s knife.
“No. That’s not right,” chef Carletta Fletcher said, taking the knife and grimacing at the juicy green swamp he’d made out of a roll of basil leaves. “You control the knife. The knife doesn’t control you.”
She whisked the blade in a flash of silvery shhh-shhh-shhh strokes, making a pile of thin green ribbons. “That’s how you chiffonade,” she told him.
“A-ight. That’s cool. I’ve never done something that fancy before,” said Wayne Jones, 24, who just a few weeks ago was on the streets with no job, no prospects and no plan.
Now Jones wants to be a chef, too.
And that means this gonzo culinary school, in one of the District’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is succeeding. It’s the latest food-as-social-justice project to come of out of the D.C. Central Kitchen, a 30-year-old institution that provides thousands of meals for local agencies while running a culinary training program for adults. And it has three layers of brilliance.
Its signature program is a tough and effective second-chance 14-week school aimed at older adults — usually fresh out of prison, rehab or careers they hated. And the folks who run the school had an aha moment.
Why not intercept these people before all the trouble begins? College isn’t for everybody. And we, as a nation, are bad at giving young adults other options. That’s the first thing that’s awesome about this.
Jones, the former boxer, did nothing after high school but take care of his baby sister and survive while the rest of his posse got hurt or jailed or killed. “I know I’m gonna end up like that if I don’t change,” he said.
That puts him in the demographic sweet spot for the new culinary program.
“All I need to hear from them is ‘I want to change my life,’ ” said Terrell Danley — a mountain of a man known as Chef T — who is the program’s motivational speaker, mentor, drill sergeant and spirit guide.
He sets a goal plan for every student, and they meet regularly. Some have jail time or college credits. Some want to be chefs, one wants to go into the Air Force. It doesn’t matter what the goal is, Chef T will help get them there. They begin their days with classwork, practical stuff such as how to dress for an interview, how to look confident and when to code-switch.
Restaurants are super hot in the nation’s capital. Jobs in this sector are growing twice as fast in the D.C. area as in the rest of the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s an industry with a lot of career paths, the perfect place for those children from blue-collar households who are wondering where the industries that fed their parents went.
But when you eat at D.C. hot spots, it’s not always local folks working there. Cross the river to Wards 7 and 8 and you will find a stubborn unemployment rate that hovers around 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively — higher than the District’s overall 5 percent rate of joblessness.
Yet only two public D.C. high schools — Ballou and Roosevelt — offer culinary arts programs.
That’s the second part of this that’s so obvious and brilliant:It builds that bridge.
“I’ve always loved cooking and I knew this was what I should do,” said Anitta Davis, 22, as she stirred basil and oregano into a giant bowl of ricotta cheese. “But I couldn’t find a way to afford culinary arts school.”
She worked her way through low-level food jobs and landed a gig cooking for the American Legion. But that job disappeared. Then came this program, where she was among 70 applicants for the first dozen spots.
Next to her, making yogurt parfaits, was Christina Lucas, 22, who went to Temple University but couldn’t afford to stay. She wants to be a vegan chef.
On dish duty was Jose Henriquez, 22, who also tried college out of state, hoping to be an architect. It was too expensive. Plan B is to become a chef.
They wore red aprons, the color of newbies. Like martial arts students, they will move on to blue, green and black aprons, eventually.
Every day, they make giant pans of food to fill catering contracts. Chicken breasts or lasagna. Or wraps and yogurt parfaits for the cafe. That’s the third part of this plan.
The school is in the gorgeous new D.C. Central Kitchen Cafe on Mississippi Avenue in Ward 8, part of the THEARC complex, and a welcome addition to a food desert.
“We see people here to see performances or waiting for their kids to finish lessons with nowhere to go for coffee or something to eat,” said Alexander Moore, D.C. Central Kitchen’s chief development officer. And then there are the folks who live in the area. No Starbucks in sight in this part of town.
The cafe is run entirely as a lab, so students build customer-service and management skills.
“A lot of us have been stuck in the streets for a while,” said Deamonte Bridgeforth, 22, who was the first person in line when the program began accepting applications. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”