In a D.C. school, the simple power of a good breakfast
He makes wonderful soups: a thick chowder with corn harvested last summer in Virginia and frozen at the D.C. Central Kitchen facilities, cooked with milk, butter and cream from Trickling Springs. He makes a fish soup with fresh salmon and tilapia. The fish comes from a local distributor–ProFish. Occasionally, the Academy’s student “social club,” which sometimes helps in the kitchen and raises money for the homeless with bake sales, convenes for cooking lessons. One day the lesson was given by a ProFish employee who showed them how to “fabricate”–or break down–a whole salmon. “I like to buy salmon with the head on,” said Drake.
He loves ordering specialty produce from local vendors. “I spent $500 for collard greens and tomatoes one time. It was so beautiful; I took pictures of it with my cell phone and sent them to my boss. She was, like, ‘What did you buy?’ “
But Drake knows that kids don’t necessarily like vegetables, especially vegetables they aren’t familiar with. He encourages me to taste the spaghetti sauce he’s cooking in the kitchen’s big, free-standing kettle. “Can you taste the eggplant in there?” No, I say, I didn’t notice. “That’s how I get them to eat certain vegetables. I disguise it.”
Some things the boys just won’t eat at all. “We’ve tried turnips many different ways. Then somebody told them it was turnip. If they know what it is, they won’t eat it.” One day Drake served venison lasagna. The kids, he said, loved it. “But later, when they found out what it was, they said, ‘You fed us Bambi! You’re cruel.’ “
Even though he doesn’t care for vegetables himself, Drake says he encourages the boys to eat a variety of them, even to the point of eating a bowl of black-eyed peas himself after losing a Super Bowl bet with the students. Drake picked the Indianapolis Colts. “We cooked a kettle of black-eyed peas. I ate a bowl and it killed me.”
After his breakdown last year, Drake cemented his reputation with Fresh Start Catering as a kitchen warrior by cooking an entire Thanksgiving feast for the school, its sponsors and parents by himself: 28 turkeys with cornbread and cranberry stuffing, 200 pounds of mashed potatoes, 150 pounds of string beans, snow peas and roasted cherry tomatoes, 98 pies (sweet potato, pumpkin, apple) and dinner rolls. In fact, the morning I met him, he apologized for the pie crusts he was using for the quiche. “They’re from Sysco,” he lamented. “I usually make them myself.”
He always answers questions, “Yes, sir!” and “No, sir!”
“The guys in the kitchen actually take pride in what they do, which makes a difference,” said instructor John Scheibel, who teaches reading and social studies.
“The boys look up to (Duane) and love to help in any way they can,” said the school’s headmaster, Joseph Powers. “Duane helps them prepare meals that go out into the community. He has taught them many kitchen skills, but most importantly, he has been a role model for them.”
Drake seems to delight in exchanging banter with the boys. I watch him as he stands at the food line, enforcing the school’s “No Seconds” rule, put in place to control portion sizes. The boys are not supposed to stuff themselves. But they are allowed unlimited fruit and salad.
“Didn’t I see you here earlier?” he says to one of the boys who seems to be late getting his dinner.
“Unh-unh,” replies the boy. “This is my first time.”
“I could swear you were here earlier,” Drake presses.
“No, sir! This is the first time, I swear!” the boy insists.
“One of these kids asked me why would I work so hard here and not make much money,” said Drake. “It’s about more than that. These boys are my brothers. I tell them, with the education you’re getting here, you can do anything.”
Drake goes back to his office, looks into his computer and starts worrying again. Two new catering jobs from Fresh Start that he’ll be responsible for have popped onto his screen. He’s still short one cook. “This is going to be tight,” he says, shaking his head. “This is going to be very tight.”
Tomorrow: Lunch, and how a catering company’s commitment to better school food results in an exquisite salad bar