If you’re following our #30yearsofDCCK stories online, you’ve probably heard about the legendary Dorothy Bell. One of the first DC Central Kitchen culinary graduates to join our staff, Ms. Dot has compiled a lengthy record of accomplishments over her 24-year history with our organization, including surpassing even our founder to become our longest-serving employee.
Of all the stories about the celebrities and elected officials who have volunteered with us over the years, one of our very favorites highlights Ms. Dot’s uncompromising approach to proper kitchen hygiene during a visit from then-President Bill Clinton. During his volunteer shift, the President stopped to itch his face while wearing rubber gloves. As he went back to work preparing meals, Ms. Dot sprang across the kitchen, arms flailing, to keep him from potentially contaminating the food. It doesn’t matter if you are an eighth grader on school service or the President of the United States, if you are in the kitchen with Dorothy Bell, you will be expected to follow ServeSafe guidelines.
Ms. Dot has 24 years of knowledge under her belt now, but she came to DC Central Kitchen like many of us – looking for a fresh start after years of bad luck. Dorothy used to work in guest services before turning to drugs and alcohol and eventually seeking support from one of our partners, Clean & Sober Streets. While there, she heard about a training program where trainees prepared meals for the community as a way of learning the ins and outs of food handling and preparation and decided to give it a try.
Looking back, Ms. Dot laughs reflecting on how much the program has evolved. “They have it made now,” Ms. Dot laughs as she talks about students enrolled in our Culinary Job Training program today, who benefit from innovative, integrated curriculum that includes multiple nationally-recognized certifications, digital literacy, financial education, professional counseling, and years of post-graduation support. “When I was in the program, we started in the kitchen with the volunteers before we got to anything in the classroom. After meals went out, I felt like we spent the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen for the next round,” she says. “But those basics are what it’s all about.”
After graduating, Ms. Dot joined our team full-time at DC Central Kitchen’s headquarters in the Federal City Shelter on Second Street NW, preparing thousands of meals a day for our community. For years, she served as a leader and mentor for those coming through the Culinary Job Training program. When we launched our Healthy School Foods program, Ms. Dot’s decade of experience with us made her a top candidate to work in schools, a role she filled for many years before transferring to a role preparing meals at our social enterprise hub in Northeast DC, the Nutrition Lab.
Now in her seventies, Ms. Dot is finally starting to think about slowing down and shifting to part-time hours – a rare occurrence at DC Central Kitchen, as we try to model the provision of consistent, full-time hours and fair scheduling practices, along with living wages and comprehensive benefits, for the hospitality industry. When asked what words of wisdom she might offer for someone considering the Culinary Job Training program today, she says, “Well, you have to explore your feelings on the inside if you want to come out clean. Number two, have an open mind. [The training team] isn’t there to hurt you, they are there to help.”
As DC Central Kitchen prepares for the graduation of our 118th class, perhaps the words of this graduate of our 23rd class will serve as inspiration for someone else looking to make a change: “I’ve been here 24 years, you can do it. It’s only as hard as you choose to make it,” she says with a smile that has greeted more than 320,000 volunteers over the past two and a half decades.