By Zoe Fredrickson*
For as long as I can remember, cooking has been my passion. Early mornings were spent poaching eggs for breakfast, afternoons planning elaborate tea parties for my friends, and evenings decorating the dining room for family dinner parties. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I’d close my eyes and envision how I would one day open a world famous restaurant featuring my star dish. I would dream about what table cloths the restaurant would have and what my logo would look like, all at the age of 7.
Growing up in an urban metropolis like D.C., my love for the culinary arts was fostered everywhere I went. Going out to dinner was more than just a nice family outing-- it was a culinary expedition; sampling and critiquing, studying and assessing what I liked and meticulously picking it apart to see how I could recreate it. In my junior year of high school I began to work at Craft Kombucha at Union Market, the conflicting smells of sweet pastries, spicy Korean barbeque and salty salami greeting me whenever I stepped through the door. Since its restoration and reopening in 2012, Union Market has embodied D.C.’s commitment to culinary innovation and accessibility. Home to 40 vendors, including a mix of informal restaurants, fast-casual cuisine, and pop-up stalls, Union Market provides a place for chefs to experiment and flourish. Cutting out the need to buy restaurant space, it makes starting in the food industry far more attainable, and it reinvigorated my love of the D.C. food scene.
The District of Columbia’s gastronomic character has become a blend of its roots in southern soul food, a distinct French backbone, seafood from the Chesapeake Bay and flairs from the many immigrant cultures prevalent across the city, all of which provide endless culinary possibilities. But the world of cuisine is an underappreciated and overlooked profession and is often thought of as a pit stop to other careers. By valuing the food industry for the true art that it is and incorporating it into the city's creative economy, we can provide meaningful jobs in cooking, catering, mixology, management, and serving to our young people.
With nearly 60% of the District's workers employed in the creative class, D.C. is one of the most creative cities in the United States. A recent study also shows the District is a top five "most inspiring city" for young artists. Councilmember Grosso has worked to support the creative economy through his ArtsActionDC initiative, which allows the creative communities of D.C. a space for open dialogue among themselves and with the government. Investing in our city’s creative economy-- the industries based on human innovation and creativity-- is about more than supporting the arts, it opens up pathways for job expansion, creative expression, cultural inclusion, and a general increase in quality of life for all.
Walking down the aisles of Union Market, I can’t help but think of an art gallery; vendors proudly displaying products they spent hours, maybe even years, working to perfect; each stall a rainbow of colors and smells. Just like WeWork provides a space for entrepreneurs to bounce ideas off each other and network, Union Market is a collaborative home to culinary creatives, promoting and building upon each other's work. And like the art world, the culinary one is a complex mix of culinary school professionals along with self-taught talents.
As an alternative to a four year college experience for students, the culinary industry provides many entry-level jobs that can lead to lifelong careers. Although as young people we are constantly told that college is the only successful way forward in life, for some, going to college is simply not their reality. This could be for many reasons to include: lack of support at home or in school, the exorbitant costs, or lack of interest. By showing these young people that there are other options for them and supporting them in school with cooking programs, we can provide more opportunities to succeed. In 2015, the culinary arts accounted for over 40,000 jobs District wide. With new restaurants popping up every day this is only increasing.
Shared kitchens and farmers markets are another option for entry points into the food world without much prior experience. MessHall, Taste Lab and Union Kitchen all provide communal commercial kitchens to small businesses who, without health department licensed kitchens, could not legally produce their food. Not only does this decrease the price for these businesses, but it also allows for collaboration and diffusion of ideas. In addition, this space encourages local employment, diminishing the possibility that these small businesses will be bought out by larger national food producers. Instead of the revenue going to businesses like Safeway or Giant, money stays in the hands of the community. Farmer’s markets also offer local entrepreneurial opportunities and in the Washington region, we enjoy more than 174 farmer’s markets. Although these goods are not as cost effective as those from national chains, by providing food stamps and other subsidies for low-income families to be able to take advantage of them, we can create a culture of local-minded conscious consumerism.
I’d consider myself a fairly academic person -- I’ve taken multiple APs in high school, I get pretty good grades -- but one of my favorite parts of cooking was being able to let loose and fully explore my more artistic side. Designing menus, elaborate plating, and coming up with new recipes were all ways I could use my imagination, without the threat of grades looming over me. I like to joke with my friends that “su cocina es mi cocina” (your kitchen is my kitchen) because whenever I visit their homes, I rummage through all the cabinets -- whipping up a quick stir fry, finding seven different ways to use ramen noodles and maybe even cooking their parents’ dinner. It is through my love of cooking and my exposure to the culinary arts that I’ve come to realize and fully appreciate one universal truth: food has the powerful ability to bring everyone together.
Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize this power. Across the District of Columbia there are distinct ethnic groups and yet, we often do not highlight them. I think about this regularly because D.C. has the largest community of Ethiopians outside of Africa; in Columbia Heights, you cannot turn a corner without passing at least a dozen pupuserias. The U Street corridor is littered with incredible soul food joints serving half smokes and mumbo sauce. All of these communities, with rich histories and vast cuisines, are here in the District of Columbia for a reason, so why are we not highlighting them? How is it that for the majority of D.C.’s culinary past, it has been known for mediocre steak houses and sandwich shops, when the potential for exciting and flavorful food is simply brushed away? By encouraging and educating young immigrants on entering the culinary workforce or how to start their own businesses, we as a city can foster a more diverse and accepting community. When it comes to employing young people, who better to hire than a person who grew up cooking certain food?
In addition to creating a new workforce and establishing a pipeline of jobs, helping students and youth to cook and appreciate food can provide other benefits as well. America's obesity problem and food deserts are issues facing our children. In the last few years DCPS has introduced programs to provide school gardens and nutrition support. When I was in middle school I remember joining one of these classes. It had amazed me that one of my fellow students went from refusing to eat anything remotely green and leafy, to becoming a full-fledged vegetarian, even to this day. By educating students on how to prepare cost-efficient and nutritious food, while also encouraging them to pursue a career later in life, we can inspire them to do more and teach their families. Although home economics classes were taken out of school curriculum to provide more productive instructional time, we are doing our children no favors when the alternative is malnutrition and lifelong health problems. Making an initiative to provide every DCPS school with their own plot of land to nurture and funding for a teacher to educate on health literacy, we can help end this cycle.
When I think of who I’d be without my love of cooking, I can’t separate the two. My organized and meticulous nature can only be explained from a childhood of meal prepping, double and triple checking recipes, and filling pages of notes from cooking shows I’d watch. Even my love of science and how things work comes from the countless failed baking attempts, and books I read on the science of food. Education, exposure and ensuring every child is in the best position to succeed are crucial to expanding and strengthening our city’s creative economy and I hope that others are afforded the opportunity to fall in love with food the way I have on this incredible culinary journey.
*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso. Zoe is a rising senior at School Without Walls and will be interning with the Office of Councilmember Grosso for 3-weeks.*