Nonprofit Nurtures Youths Through Food

Posted June 29, 2007 at 5:11pm

Nametags adorning suits and ties. An open bar. Roving plates of tuna tartare. All encapsulated in the private dining patio of an exclusive hotel.

It’s a scene experienced by hundreds of Washingtonians every evening.

And while at the premiere Brainfood Grill-Off last week, the night’s theme was — as the name suggests — significantly more gastronomical than political, the goal still was, at least partly, about raising money.

In an effort to draw the District’s culinary elite, eight teams — under the direction of acclaimed area chefs — took to the grills to produce one dish each of surf and turf capable of eliciting the endorsement of the event’s esteemed epicures.

And while each group fervently combined ingredients ranging from eggplant to scallops to produce dishes such as the “Trinidad Treat” (grilled shrimp on a bed of couscous and mango sauce), the event was ultimately about raising funds for Brainfood, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to teach area high school students life skills through food.

“The ultimate goal is to raise expectations for youth,” said Paul Dahm, the organization’s executive director. “One of the things we find out here very, very quickly, is if we have high expectations they live up to them very quickly,” he said, adding: “A lot of them don’t have the confidence because no one has ever said, ‘You can do it.’”

As Dahm noted, cooking is more than slicing and sauteing. Chefs also must be proficient in other less culinary skills, such as math, reading and problem solving — skills that not all entering students have.

“You would probably be surprised to know how many D.C. public ninth, 10th, and 11th school students can’t read a chocolate chip cookie recipe,” he said.

So to assuage that problem, Brainfood was launched in 1998.

Originally the organization started with just one location in Columbia Heights and relied on a tiny plate of donors, said Dahm, who started his tenure about halfway through the institution’s history.

“We were in very difficult financial straits when I started here,” Dahm said. Since that time, however, Brainfood has continued to expand, most noticeably with the October opening of a teaching facility in the Chinatown area.

It was a move, Dahm said, that helped raise the organization’s access to students and donors, noting they now have easy access to both Metro and parking.

“Folks that wouldn’t normally come to an open house in Columbia Heights would come here,” he said, referring to the Chinatown neighborhood.

Others, such as Capitol sous chef Kevin Guzman, have noticed the changes as well.

“I am speechless,” he said, surveying the Grill-Off teams competing in the increasingly smoke-filled patio. “When I first started [with Brainfood], they could barely afford to buy equipment or food.”

Guzman, whom Dahm described as “one of our success stories,” participated in the Brainfood program while attending Bell Multicultural High School a few years ago. After graduating, he decided to continue his culinary training and enrolled into the Culinary Institute of America in New York, one of the nation’s most renowned and exclusive culinary arts schools. Eventually, he said, he hopes to work as a private chef.

“This is a great way to get kids started in a fast-paced, highly organized field,” said Seth Olinger, a sous chef at the Washington Convention Center location of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain who was one of the event’s team advisers. He noted that while he was growing up, little formal food preparation training was available outside the expensive culinary institutes.

However, Dahm said the organization’s main goal is not the creation of the next generation of chefs.

“Really we focus more on the life skills. The culinary stuff is more of a secondary outcome,” he said. “But what happens is some of the students come here and find they really have a knack for this.”

And the body of future potential chefs is growing, Dahm said, noting the number of students has doubled every year over the past three years to about 125 this season.

To continue to buy ingredients and equipment, fundraising, like it is for any nonprofit, is key.

Dahm said last week’s event brought in about $30,000, enough to support about 10 additional students.

Moreover, it allowed organizers to make a slew of new contacts, such as the area chefs who assisted the teams as well as Marc Silverstein, host of the Food Network’s “The Best Of” series.

Silverstein, who lives in Rockville, Md., and attended American University, served as the master of ceremonies, dropping in on the various stations, announcing their progress to the attendees and inspiring more competition.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s a great idea, it’s great that it’s in its first year, I love the first year of an event because we aren’t bound by rules.”