- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

ighteen-year-old Christopher Tibbs is on a fast track to a promising future in the food industry that won’t have much to do with fast food.

His passion is pastry and the baking arts, a skill that helped him win a two-year, $41,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., a major training ground for American chefs that he plans to attend next year.

As part of the requirement for accepting the money, awarded by the nationally run C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program), Mr. Tibbs must serve a six-month internship working in a restaurant. So, instead of lazing around the house or sporting about with friends, the June 9 graduate of the District’s Margaret Murray Washington Career High School in Northwest commutes regularly from his home in Anacostia to the kitchen of Gabriel restaurant in the Radisson Barcelo Hotel near Dupont Circle.

“I do a lot more than looking,” the slim young man with a shy grin notes during one of Gabriel’s expansive Sunday brunch buffets. Bobby Brandt, the restaurant’s sous chef, frequently takes him aside to show him some tricks of the trade. Mr. Brandt calls Mr. Tibbs a quick learner and praises his willingness to learn.

Mr. Tibbs was stationed in the kitchen most of a recent Sunday, doing routine prep work and helping set up dessert tables. Prep work at times includes cracking eggs for use by the line cook, who comes in later. Mr. Tibbs also assists the staff when it is involved in catering events.

The routine and discipline is “like going to school again,” he says. “It forced me to get my priorities straight.”

The $9-an-hour internship, which began on a part-time basis in May and will become full time, gives him pocket money, half of which he puts aside in a savings account. When he isn’t working, he helps his mother, Cynthia Tibbs, at home with his younger brother, Justin.

The job at Gabriel came about through a series of serendipitous events involving a host of dedicated educators and culinary professionals. A key factor was Elizabeth Delems, food and beverage manager at the restaurant and hotel, who was searching for what she calls “employees with the right attitude. … It’s important to bring in staff that want to learn and grow,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Culinary Alliance, a year-old group of local professionals in the food industry, was seeking a restaurant where a future scholarship winner could be employed as an intern before going on to classes at the CIA. The $41,000 sum will cover room, board and tuition for two years.

The scholarship program that C-CAP has had in place for several years named two other local winners, also M.M. Washington school students. They are Terrance Smith, 18, and William Irick, 17, both of the District, who will attend the privately run post-secondary Art Institute of Washington in Arlington; they were awarded lesser amounts on a different basis.

Mr. Smith will work toward a two-year associate degree in culinary arts, while William, a high school junior, gets room and board and a week of course work at the institute. All three young men won in competition with entrants from schools all over Washington.

The focus was on Mr. Tibbs as a strong talent, someone who had his eye on a career in the field from childhood, when he watched his mother and grandmother cooking at home. The food shows on television that feature baking intrigued him especially.

“I like sweets a lot,” he acknowledges, although his trim frame doesn’t reflect it.

He had applied to M.M. Washington with a friend and discovered that the culinary program had been strengthened this past year by the Culinary Alliance, which is headed by ex-chef and Antiguan native Ian Barthley, also a local coordinator for C-CAP.

“He’s a great kid. A quiet, polite kid with ambition,” says Mr. Barthley, a CIA graduate who has worked as a pastry chef at Washington’s Timothy Dean Restaurant and Bar. “I think his mother is a strong influence, but he knew exactly where he wanted to go.”

Several factors combined to explain Mr. Tibbs’ current good fortune.

Mr. Barthley, now a marketing associate with Sysco/US Foodservice, a food distribution company, long had been interested in promoting minorities in his profession, and Josie Paige, M.M. Washington’s principal, who is on the board of the Culinary Alliance, wanted to find ways to keep young people who are unable to see connections between their studies and the real world from dropping out.

Hope is the factor often left out of high school curriculums, says Ms. Paige, who set about to change matters by exposing students to opportunities in a profession she says they often connect only with low-paying, low-skill jobs at fast-food outlets.

Through her work with the Culinary Alliance, she has helped arrange field trips as well as bring chefs and other industry professionals to the school to do on-site presentations, exposing students to various facets of the business.

Students this way became acquainted with “exotic vegetables,” such as sugar snap peas and artichokes, some for the first time. They learned that the business includes salespeople as well as chefs.

“I have a number of graduates who have jobs in hotels in the area starting at $30,000, which is a very respectable sum,” she says.

The alliance’s goals of striving to enhance the stature and number of its members combined well with the aims of area educators such as Ms. Paige trying to improve students’ school experience. (Other District high schools with culinary career programs include Anacostia and Ballou.)

Mr. Barthley and the alliance plan to double their outreach efforts this coming year and eventually increase the number of scholarships available.

“Unfortunately, a lot of kids are falling through the cracks,” he says, agreeing with Ms. Paige.

“We are losing 50 percent of our students,” Ms. Paige notes, adding that she would like to see similar well-run career programs in all local high schools. M.M. Washington has 60 students enrolled in the culinary arts program out of a total student body of 287 in ninth through 12th grades.

“We want to find out what motivates students and then tie that into what they are going to do with the rest of their life; we try to integrate work skills with academic agility,” she says.

“The next thing is to get teachers out into the workplace — career [program] teachers specifically — so we are working on externships. Historically, high schools haven’t changed in the past 80 years while the world has changed around them.”

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