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10 Questions for D.C. Central Kitchen's Michael F. Curtin, Jr.

Published in Gourmet Live 11.07.12
Learn how the head of one of America's largest homeless shelters and soup kitchens found his dream job

By Tanya Steel
10 Questions for D.C. Central Kitchen's Michael F. Curtin, Jr.

Since its founding in 1989, D.C. Central Kitchen has dished out 25 million meals to kids, the homeless, and the food-insecure, and has helped more than 1,000 men and women get jobs in the restaurant industry. The nonprofit's mission is to strengthen bodies, empower minds, and build communities by combating hunger, aiding nutrition, and improving the lives of the out-of-work. We asked CEO Michael F. Curtin, Jr., what's cooking at the Kitchen and why it's become a model for other programs around the country and beyond.

Gourmet Live: How did you first get involved in D.C. Central Kitchen?

Michael Curtin: I started in the hospitality biz in D.C., at the Hay-Adams Hotel, in 1989, the same year Robert Egger opened D.C. Central Kitchen. I got to know Robert, and when I opened my own restaurant in 1998, D.C. Central Kitchen was one of two nonprofits I "adopted" and worked with. I now refer to the five years I owned and operated my restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia, as my first experience in the nonprofit sector, but it did allow me to volunteer at the Kitchen and get more involved.

After I got out of the restaurant, I was doing some consulting and came across a job posting for the COO position. It was one of those things that really did seem to be too good to be true. I got in touch with Robert, and we met and talked for hours about where the Kitchen could go and what it could be. That was a Saturday, I started on Monday, and it's been a glorious eight-year ride since then.

GL: You received a degree in Religion from Williams College, worked in Japan for three years, and ran restaurants in Virginia for two decades. How did all of that experience help inform your work running D.C. Central Kitchen?

MC: In addition to those things, I went to a Jesuit high school, Gonzaga, just down the road from the Kitchen. It was there that I first got really involved in service work and being part of my community. I was privileged to work with Father Horace McKenna, who was doing some amazing work with marginalized men, women, and families in the neighborhood. I'd like to say that I left Gonzaga carrying the Jesuit banner of social justice high, but that really wasn't the case. Not then or in my four years at Williams College or during my time in Japan or even in the restaurant business did I think that my dream job would be in the basement of one of the largest homeless shelters in the country, working out of an office that was literally a converted mop closet. But that's what it turned out to be.

I can definitely see, however, that every turn along the winding road I traveled was leading me to D.C. Central Kitchen. Seeing the depth of poverty in a city so rich; being challenged to think differently and not accept without thoughtful consideration ideas that I may have held; working in a culture very different from what I had grown up in and learning the value of consensus and seeing how far simple respect for that which might be considered "other" can get you; experiencing the challenge of bringing different people together to achieve a common goal; and then leaping into the unknown with only entrepreneurial aspirations to keep me going are all things I rely on today to make the Kitchen thrive and grow.

Ultimately, the hospitality business is about service. It's about doing something, creating something that is going to have a positive impact on someone else. That may be someone you don't know and may never see again, but you do everything you can to make an impression on them and give them pleasure. That's what I do today, it's just that the impression we're trying to make has the ability to change someone's life.

GL: Your School Food Program serves 5,000 healthy, locally sourced, scratch-cooked meals to 2,000 low-income D.C. school children every day, demonstrating that school meals can be nutritious, affordable, and sustainable. Did you have trouble persuading the kids to try healthier options?

MC: This is one of the great urban myths that prevent folks from trying to do things differently: "Kids won't eat healthy food." If we never offer them healthy food, that statement would be true 100 percent of the time. But I'm here to tell you that if you give kids healthy food, especially the elementary and middle school students we cook for, they will eat it…and look for more. Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and I've been more than pleasantly surprised to hear the students explain, without prompting, how this kind of food and these healthy choices positively impact their ability to perform in class and stay healthy.

At first, we might have tried too hard and maybe put too much emphasis on "healthy" as opposed to simply tasting good. So we looked at what the menus had been and just started doing them smarter. The standard cafeteria burger and spaghetti became local, hormone-free beef on a whole grain bun and that same beef in a sauce made with fresh herbs and local tomatoes over whole wheat pasta; fried fish and chicken nuggets became herb-crusted tilapia and baked free-range chicken strips with homemade BBQ sauce.

GL: In your Healthy Corners program, which delivers fresh produce and healthy snacks to 29 stores in D.C.'s food deserts, what are some of the most popular items?

MC: We faced the same challenge here that we did with the schools, just with a little twist: "People in those areas of the city will never eat fresh food." Again, if we don't offer it, that will always be true. The trick here was to convince the merchants that this would work and that the "experimentation" process wouldn't cost them a penny. So we were able to source some funding to purchase and provide to the merchants display refrigerators, shelving units, and signage. We then provided the early product for free, stepping the cost up gradually to a true wholesale price after five months. By this time, the merchants saw this product was selling and that their customers wanted more.

Since we started charging full price for product in January, we have seen sales increase every month, and more stores are signing up for the program.

GL: Your outreach isn't limited to young kids but also pulls in college kids through the Campus Kitchens Project in 33 communities across America. Does this mean the freshman 10 will become the freshman 2?

MC: I guess we are making progress; when I was in college, it was the freshman 15.

The focus of the Campus Kitchens Project is really aimed more at having the students use food as a tool to get more involved in their communities and have the program act as an incubator for young leaders of tomorrow.

GL: Your Culinary Training Program for unemployed men and women who seek to replace homelessness, addiction, and incarceration with new careers has changed so many lives. Can you share a success story?

MC: I can give you well over a thousand. The important thing to understand is why we put so much emphasis on our training program. The simple fact is that food will not end hunger. We will never feed our way out of hunger, and in many ways, hunger isn't even about food.

I'll tell you about Dawain.…Dawain grew up in southeast D.C. When he was 10 years old, he thought to himself that if—and that was a big if—he was alive when he was 21, he'd be in jail. And this was what the other kids in his neighborhood thought as well. His dad was a drug dealer who was in prison. His mom was an addict who would leave him and his two brothers for days and weeks at a time in apartments without water or electricity. When he was 11, he was arrested for the first time stealing food to feed himself and his brothers. This started a very predictable cycle of violence, gangs, and incarceration. Except for a couple months here and there, he would spend the next 23 years of his life in prison.

When he went in for the last time, he told himself that he had to change; that he just couldn't do this anymore. So he did what we, society, told him to do: He got his GED and several trade certificates. When he got out at age 33, he tried hard for two months to get a job using the skills he had learned in prison, only to be rejected because of his past. He told his case worker that he might as well go back to prison now, because without a job he would have to go back to the street, and one of two things would happen: He'd get hurt or hurt someone else and end up back in prison. Instead, his case worker sent him to D.C. Central Kitchen.

He had a big chip on his shoulder, but settled in and did a great job in the class, and we hired him as soon as he graduated to work in our catering company. After a year or so, he asked to move over to the production kitchen so that he could work directly with our culinary job-training students who were coming out of prison, just as he had. He's been with us now for almost seven years and is a manager. He is no longer costing us all $50,000 per year to keep him in prison; instead he's putting money back into the community, paying taxes, paying rent, and buying food, has a good job, his own place to live, health insurance, and a retirement plan…and a daughter. And his daughter, when she is 10 years old, will never say to herself, "If I'm alive when I'm 21, I'll be in prison." This is what we are talking about when say we need to break the generational cycle of incarceration and poverty, and this is what D.C. Central Kitchen is all about.

GL: Recently you began a partnership with local farmers to purchase their "unclassified" produce—that is, misshapen or very ripe produce—food that would be usually be thrown away, yet is perfectly delicious. Is this something other community kitchens—and, indeed, home cooks—should do, to bring down their own bills?

MC: Between the meals we do for the community, the meals we do for the schools, and our catering, we're preparing well over 10,000 meals every day; so we do have a bit of a volume advantage over most consumers in terms of purchasing power. We also have a fleet of trucks and an army of people we want to employ to drive those trucks and prepare meals with the food they bring in. What everyone can do, however, is be aware of what is out there and look for creative ways to source it.

When we started this, I assumed there was some waste on independent farms because some of what was produced was aesthetically or geometrically not what consumers had been trained to think they wanted. I had no idea, however, of the magnitude. I've heard numbers as high as 40 percent to 60 percent of what is produced on independent farms doesn't make it off the farm because of cosmetic reasons or lack of a reliable distribution infrastructure. That's just crazy.

The first step we took, and this could apply to anyone, is to reach out to farmers. We asked them what they had that they were having trouble marketing, and how we could work together to solve that problem. For everyday consumers, I'd say doing some legwork like this and developing affordable CSA programs would be a great place to start. Being able to go to the farm and pick stuff up would be a great help, and I'd be shocked if folks didn't find growers who would love to get involved like that.

GL: Would you like to see D.C. Central Kitchen be a model for other community kitchens throughout the country and world? How can we make this happen?

MC: Almost since the beginning, we've considered ourselves an open source of information. We certainly don't have all the answers, but we have a lot of lessons learned, and we are always willing to share. It's pretty rare that a week goes by when we're not on the phone or hosting visitors from around the country and around the world who want to do some version of what we have at the Kitchen. There are probably 50 or 60 cities in the USA that have a program that is modeled, at least in part, after D.C. Central Kitchen.

One of the ways we spread the word is through our volunteers. Every year, we'll host about 14,000 volunteers from around the country and the world. We hope every one of them leaves asking themselves, "Why don't we have one of these in our city?" And then we're here to help them if they want to take the next step. Awareness is huge—helping us spread that is the most helpful thing people can do.

GL: You inspire so many. Who inspires you?

MC: That's very kind, but I really don't think of myself as inspiring others. I do consider myself extremely lucky to have found the Kitchen and to be in a place where everything I've experienced and learned in life can be put to good use. I am also incredibly lucky to be surrounded, and certainly inspired, by men and women who have faced and overcome more hurdles and obstacles than I could ever imagine.

Although it may sound corny, my parents started me on this journey when I was too young to understand what they were doing. As I've gotten smarter, or at least older, I've come to understand what they did and the sacrifices they made, and continue to make, for me and my brothers and sisters and so many others. Living up to their legacy is certainly something that drives me every day.

GL: What will you be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

MC: In so many ways, every day is Thanksgiving at D.C. Central Kitchen. It's hard to imagine a place that is filled with more gratitude than what we see every day. But when that Thursday in November rolls around and we lock the Kitchen doors after all the turkey and trimmings have gone out, I'm thankful that the men and women who work here, who graduated from our program after years of incarceration, addiction, abuse, or time living in shelters, have a place to go to with people they love and who love them to share their own Thanksgiving dinner.