DISHING UP DINNERS & DREAMS

Chef Marisa Stubbs uses ‘social entrepreneurship’ to impart culinary & life skills training to DC youth

BY LAURA FINCH

WASHINGTON, DC, 4 May 2013- A roasted pork loin rests on the counter, waiting to be sliced and drizzled with honey glaze. Crispy asian slaw tossed with ginger lime vinaigrette waits nearby.

A culinary student carefully slices a flourless chocolate cake, wiping off the knife with a clean towel before the next cut.
ffl_logoThe scene looks, smells, and tastes like a gourmet cooking demonstration. It’s actually Food for Life, a culinary school to educate and train low-income youth in Washington, D.C.

Today head chef, Marisa Stubbs, is showing her student employees how to make mayonnaise from scratch.

“We’re going to put a pinch of salt,” she announces. “Now, you know my pinches are a little bit bigger than that. No salt, no compliments. And we want compliments.”

Stubbs graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. before teaching culinary techniques at Williams Sonoma. With cooking terms sprinkled throughout her language, she describes how and why she conceived of Food for Life, and credits the idea to a previous job. It was there that she learned about the concept of social entrepreneurship- raising money through a program rather than constantly fundraising.

“That was a seed that was planted in me early on,” says Stubbs. “There was this part of me that really wanted to teach and train, and not just do-for. So those things percolated in me for awhile.”

Stubbs says she uses food as job training and development.

“Food for life isn’t just learning how to cut. It’s learning how to work in teams and communicate well, to express yourself, to do time management, to disagree, to let people know where you are and what you’re doing- what people refer to as soft skills, which are actually hard to teach people.

“The hard skills are actually a lot easier to teach than the soft skills.”

On Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:00 p.m., the Food for Life kitchen, a recently renovated church basement on Seward Square in SE, transforms into a real-time catering business. Customers who have purchased orders online through Paypal line up at the window of the kitchen for their made-to-order meals. It’s in the pressure-filled environment of ‘dinner service’ that Stubbs finds many teachable moments.

“We were 15 minutes late starting for service,” she says to a weary group one Tuesday night after all the customers have departed. “That corresponds with most of you coming back from break at 4:45.”

Food for Life is clearly about much more than food, but along the way, students develop quite a palette of their own.

Each Friday, students re-create the menu they’ve prepared for the last two dinner services- without help from Stubbs. One particular test day, the pork is slightly overdone and a student asks about making the usual accompanying honey glaze.

“We don’t have time for sauce,” says Stubbs. General outcry ensues.

“We need some sauce on that meat! You gotta put some hot sauce on this. That pork is dry. We need some sauce.”

Yukenia, one of the students working at the counter during dinner service, agrees that the glaze is one of the best parts of this week’s meal.

“I actually tried to make my own glaze last night but I didn’t have the right ingredients. So unfortunately it didn’t come out right. But it was good, and I liked it, and I enjoyed it, and my kids did too.”

And how old are Yukenia’s kids?

“Ten, seven and five,” she says.

It’s impossible to know where Yukenia would be working or what she would be doing each afternoon with her kids if she weren’t faithfully coming to Food for Life. But there’s no doubt that because of Stubbs and the program, she has a brand new career path.

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