On a recent sunny Tuesday afternoon in downtown DC, former 1789 chef Ris Lacoste; José Andrés of Jaleo, Café Atlántico, and increasing international renown; and recent Top Chef finalist Carla Hall gathered to witness a unique culinary ceremony. In a small auditorium below the US Navy Memorial, 23 energetic celebrants bounced and swayed to the rollicking beat of McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”
They were about to become the 74th class to graduate from DC Central Kitchen’s culinary-job-training class, and never did a group have a greater claim on the song’s lyrics: “There’ve been so many things that have held us down / but now it looks like things are finally comin’ around . . . . ” The men and women were standing tall in crisp, white chef’s jackets freshly embroidered with their names, but all of them differed starkly from the average culinary student: Before joining the program, they were unemployed or homeless, and many had been incarcerated.
In many ways, this graduation ceremony was like any other. Speeches were given, and the class’s achievements were highlighted: There was a 100-percent graduation rate for the first time in the program’s history; everyone had passed the crucial ServSafe exam, which qualifies them to handle food in DC; and after a short, three-week job search, 17 out of the 23 class members were headed for jobs at places such as the Mandarin Oriental hotel, National Harbor’s Cadillac Ranch, and the National Institutes of Health.
Then came moments that highlighted just how unusual this graduation really was. Among the many awards for individual graduates was one for “life skills,” given to the student who had demonstrated the greatest personal achievement. This year, a man who had been living on the streets before joining the program earned the coveted award.
Carla Hall, a frequent volunteer teacher at DCCK, took the microphone, saying: “No matter what challenges lie ahead, please remember that the one thing you have all done is survived.”
Reginald Brooks, selected by fellow students to be the graduation speaker, recalled the difficult past of many of his classmates. “I’m glad I didn’t know them then,” he said with a smile. “I’m glad to know them as compassionate people.” DCCK founder Robert Egger talked about how on day one of class, “everybody’s fronting.” Indeed, one needed only to look to the front row of the audience, where the roughly two dozen members of Class 75 watched the proceedings with stony faces. But on this day, the members of Class 74 whoop and cheer for the speakers and, above all, for one another.
Soon after the ceremony, DCCK board member José Andrés whisked in. He had missed the main event but was determined to talk to the students. He asked CEO Mike Curtin if the class could gather together one last time so he could congratulate them personally. Ris Lacoste, also a DCCK board member and a regular program teacher, recalled how guarded the students are when they arrive at the beginning of the program and how different their outlook is a mere 12 weeks later. As the smiling graduates and their friends and families milled around, enjoying cake and lemonade, Lacoste reflected on how far she’d seen Class 74 come. She took a deep breath and said: “It’s the magic of food.”