Food as an Empowerment Tool: An Interview with D.C. Central Kitchen's Executive Chef Ed Kwitowski
Below is our interview with D.C. Central Kitchen's Executive Chef, Ed Kwitowski. This is the second interview in our series with the staff at (D.C. Central Kitchen) DCCK. Learn more about their programming on edibleschoolyard.org.
The Edible Schoolyard Project: What is your past work experience and how did it lead you to your position as executive chef for School Contracts at DCCK?
Ed Kwitowski: After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, and prior to coming to DCCK, I worked in many fine dining restaurants in the District of Columbia. My most notable positions were nine years at Bisto Bis and Vidalia, under the direction of James Beard award winner Chef Jeffrey Buben, and Chef de cuisine under celebrity chef Ris Lascoste at Restaurant Ris and The Ritz Carlton. I happened into my current position by chance, when Ris Lacoste contacted Mike Curtain at DCCK, who had recently received a contract from D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). As a parent with three children, I was looking to do something other than fine dining. I found this program to be quite fascinating.
ESYP: Each day DCCK prepares 4,800 meals for 10 schools. How does the kitchen operation support this output? How big is your kitchen team?
EK: We coordinate our output from three different sites. The Nutrition Lab provides approximately 2,000 lunches a day to eight of our DCPS accounts. Kelly Miller acts as a production site for approximately 1,700 breakfasts and 900 suppers. Walker Jones Education Campus and Washington Jesuit Academy are standalone operations. We have approximately 43 individuals in the School Contract foods division which are headed by four trained Chefs.
ESYP: As executive chef, do you cook every day or oversee operation?
EK: Three years ago, when we first received the DCPS contract, I spent a large amount of time cooking and structuring program. Over the past two years, I have spent less time in the kitchen and more time overseeing the daily operations; however, I am in the kitchen to do recipe development.
ESYP: Is it important to you that DCCK employ men and women who have graduated from the Culinary Job Training Program?
EK: Absolutely. The opportunity we provide to our graduates is at the core of DCCK's mission. We strive to empower individuals so they can go on to be independent and productive citizens contributing to our community.
ESYP: What is the most meaningful part of your leadership position? Is your work more about cooking healthy food or about creating a good work environment for employees with tumultuous pasts?
EK: The most meaningful part of my leadership position at DCCK is the opportunity to work, teach, and learn from so many individuals with different backgrounds. I feel fortunate to be in my position and have the chance to affect lives of others, and have my life affected by them as well (in a positive way). Cooking healthy delicious food and creating a good work environment often go hand in hand. Without the care our employees display making the food they provide, none of us would have this opportunity.
ESYP: How do you decide the menus? Do you plan them for the entire year all at once?
EK: Our team collaborates together in menu development. We have a six-week cycle which we are consistently adding breakfast, lunch, and supper items to. All of our menu items are approved by our registered dietitian and tested for quality before going in our recipe book.
ESYP: What does partnership look like with the farmers you support? How did you get involved with the producers and how often are you in contact with them?
EK: Under the direction of our Purchaser Steve Kendall, we have developed several long-lasting relationships. Toigo Orchards, Shenandoah Valley produce auction, T&E Meats, Kirby Farms, and Kilmer Orchards provide approximately 40 percent of our menu items. We purchase products directly from the farmers so they can expand their market base without a middleman. Typically, we are in contact with the local producers on a weekly basis.
ESYP: What is your end hope for the work you’re doing to bring healthy, scratch-cooked meals to students?
EK: The end hope for all the work we are doing would be to instill a foundation of healthier eating for the students and staff we serve in DCPS. Also, to demonstrate that scratch-cooked meals can be a reality in all schools, depending on each and every school's desire to allocate the appropriate resources.
ESYP: Are there particular people who you could not succeed with without?
EK: We all succeeded or fail together. I could not succeed without the support of my family and all of the staff members who contribute to our program.
ESYP: Do you view food as an empowerment tool to help people toward happier and healthier lives? Why is the student population an important one to reach?
EK: The student population is critical to reach because they are more malleable. We find younger students more willing to try different foods. From there, they hopefully develop better eating habits. Food can empower an individual to live a happier, healthier life, but ultimately, it is up to the individual to create that end result.