UPO culinary instructor Chef Jerald Thomas
UPO culinary instructor Chef Jerald Thomas Credit: Laura Hayes

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At the back of Chef Jerald Thomas’ classroom inside Frederick Douglas Early Learning Center on Stanton Road SE is a flashy bulletin board full of wisdom for anyone who’s being hard on themselves or confronting difficult personalities. “Toxic people will not be changed by the alchemy of your kindness,” one of Thomas’ signs reads. “Yes, be kind, but move on swiftly and let life be their educator.” 

Others empower students to “change their words to change their mindsets.” “This may take some time and effort” is better than “this is too hard.” Same goes for “I am going to train my brain to do this” instead of “I can’t do this.” 

Thomas is United Planning Organization’s culinary arts instructor. The nonprofit’s work is centered around helping vulnerable D.C. residents find meaningful work that makes them more self-sufficient. Despite the challenges of operating in a pandemic, the most recent class of seven students graduated from the 12-week culinary arts program on April 15. There couldn’t be a better time for a fresh cohort of cooks to enter the job market. There’s currently a staffing crisis in D.C. Restaurants are desperate for employees as they race to welcome vaccinated diners. 

Some clients who come to UPO have been unemployed or underemployed because they’ve experienced homelessness, incarceration, or addiction. Others are single parents entering the workforce for the first time or individuals looking for a later-in-life career change. “This is the industry of forgiveness,” Thomas says. “As long as you put the work in and strive to continue growing, you should be fine. I use a lot of my experience with the students while I’m teaching.” 

Thomas, a D.C. native, has lived many lives since graduating from Ballou Senior High School in 1978. He joined the military, serving three years in the Marine Corps and another six and a half years in the U.S. Navy. While he’s grateful the Navy gave him his first taste of food service, he struggled. 

“I was an alcoholic and an addict,” Thomas says, noting that he’s been in recovery for 24 years. “I thought when I went into the service it would help, but everyone was doing it. I dealt with so much. I went in after the Vietnam War. It was crazy. That and dealing with discrimination in the military, which a lot of people don’t talk about. It was very prevalent. I’m not making excuses, but it contributed to it more.”

After he left the military, Thomas worked at Town & Country Deli, later known as the Sandwich Society, in Chevy Chase in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “At that time the subway was just coming up there,” he says. “Most of the nannies were people of color going out to Montgomery County to take care of wealthy people’s kids. Our shop was right there across from the subway. They wanted coffee, home fries, and bacon-and-egg sandwiches. Boom, boom, boom. We’d always have a line.” 

Thomas took the job to improve his speed and accuracy reading tickets in a fast-paced kitchen. “But at the time, I was in my addiction and the restaurant sold beer,” he says. “I got what I needed and should have moved on maybe two or three years earlier than I did … I thought I would just drink, but it escalated. I was still [functional] and worked every day until it took its toll. I was homeless for maybe a year or two. Eventually I got sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

While in recovery, Thomas enrolled in D.C. Central Kitchen’s culinary job training program to hone his skills and get back on track. The 14-week intensive course that includes culinary instruction, job readiness training, and life skills development serves adults who face employment barriers and prepares them for jobs in the food industry. Upon graduating, Thomas found work at the sprawling cafeteria inside the Central Intelligence Agency. But it wasn’t long until DCCK lured him back for what evolved to be a long career with the revered nonprofit.

Thomas started as the sous chef of DCCK’s Fresh Start Catering while attending school full time at Stratford University in Falls Church. He was promoted to executive chef of the catering operation before holding a number of other leadership positions, including kitchen director and culinary instructor.

“He brought an amazing crystal clear sense of honesty and values and I’d say they were a byproduct of his belief in what DCCK can do,” says the organization’s CEO, Michael F. Curtin Jr. “Jerald was a product of DCCK. He understood the program and the value of liberation and opportunity and change. He saw what it did for him and he had this incredible desire to make sure other people saw what was possible for them.”

Curtin was sad to see Thomas move on from DCCK. He thought he was retiring, but that didn’t last long. “Jerald just has this incredible desire to share his journey with others and share that through food, which is what the kitchen is all about,” he says. “I’m really happy for him that he found a way to do that in a way that suited where he was at that point in his life.” 

Thomas first connected with UPO around 2013 when they brought him on to manage a program with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He jokes that when the federal government and nonprofits partner, their missions don’t always emulsify. “Oil and vinegar—two entities that don’t mix,” he jokes.

But UPO was impressed with his curriculum and brought him on to lead its culinary arts course. Since 2015, Thomas estimates that 17 cohorts have come through his program that bounces back and forth between the classroom and a kitchen inside the facility at 3240 Stanton Road SE. Class runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week. Thomas says the course is free to UPO clients as long as they “bring their open minds and leave their attitudes at the door.”

The leap from cooking at home to cooking in a commercial kitchen is significant. Students learn about safety and sanitation before moving on to knife skills and cooking techniques. Thomas knows he’s tough, but he builds students back up after knocking them down. “If you don’t want to stand for seven hours, get out,” he says, even though City Paper can sense a smile on the other side of his mask. “You don’t want to taste anything? Get out. You can’t pick and choose what you learn.” 

It can be tricky convincing students to sample dishes they don’t like even though they need to do so to make sure they’re up to standard. “There are things I prepare that I don’t care for, like tzatziki,” Thomas says. “I’m not a fan, but I can eat it. I can taste it to make sure. That’s what they have to develop.”

He provides an example of a cook who doesn’t eat beef. “In that case, you have to find a person, a confidant, who will tell you the honest truth,” he instructs. “Because if you start your own business and you refuse to put beef on the menu, you’re leaving money on the table. … I teach in this manner. It’s not about you. It’s about the customer.” 

The most rewarding moments for Thomas are when his students successfully execute a dish they haven’t seen before or were previously afraid to try. “Being African American, when I interview them I say, ‘You’re not going to see fried food or soul food or however you want to call it. You’re going to see diverse different cultures. We’re going to different countries.’”

During one of the later weeks in the course, Thomas taught them how to make gravlax—salmon cured in a mix of salt and sugar. The students were hesitant to try it at first because the salmon never sees a heat source. “Guess why I don’t have none for you?” Thomas tells City Paper. “I wish I saved you some but they were like, ‘Oh my god this is good.’” 

Thomas is serious about time constraints and doesn’t coddle his pupils when it comes time for them to present their plates after a cooking challenge. He’s looking for precise knife cuts and proper protein temperatures. Don’t dare bring him a dry chicken breast. 

“They had an hour time limit,” Thomas says, describing a recent assignment. “When I say stop, it’s not Top Chef, where you’re going to miss out on money, but you fail. If you had this project on your second or third job interview, you fail. You don’t get the job and that’s on you.” He likes to work in dishes that trip contestants up on shows like Hell’s Kitchen: risotto, seared scallops, and beef Wellington. 

Photo of Chef Jerald Thomas’ bulletin board by Laura Hayes

UPO clients meet with job placement specialists three times throughout the course. They can help place students in cooking jobs everywhere from airports, ballparks, and daycares to schools, convention centers, and restaurants. But Thomas tries to encourage them to strike out on their own with a practice exercise. 

He sends students out into the community to seek out restaurants with a good vibe. “If your eyes light up when you go in there, introduce yourself and say you’re such and such in a culinary training program due to complete soon.” He encourages them to ask for a job and expects them to bring back at least two business cards from hiring managers to demonstrate that they made the effort. “If they do it on their own, they get a confidence boost. That’s part of the self-empowerment I slide in there without them knowing I’m doing it.” 

One of his tips for students is to pursue employment within D.C. proper where the minimum wage is $15. He also cautions that commutes to Maryland and Virginia are time-consuming, pricey, and could ultimately lead to enough frustration that they’ll be back on the job hunt too quickly. He tracks their progress by staying in touch after they graduate. 

“I want to know the good, the bad, the indifferent,” Thomas says. “Don’t call me after you’ve told your boss off. Call me before so I can talk you off of that. I’ve talked them through a recipe or keeping their job.” He’s advised students to become more indispensable by learning new skills, like how to butcher meat and fish.

“One of my other sayings is that I’m going to live rent free in your mind,” Thomas continues. “There’s going to be something you’re doing 10 years from now and you’ll think, ‘Chef Jerald told me not to do this.’” 

Thomas has some advice for all Washingtonians in the workforce: “Do a five-year plan and say, ‘Is this working or is it time to move on?’” He evaluates whether he’s still passionate and having fun on an ongoing basis. “What’s going to wake you up in the morning to feel genuinely happy about going in? If you’re taking your time getting there like you’re going to a funeral, eventually you’re going to quit in the wrong manner or you’re going to get fired.” 

For now, Thomas is feeling fulfilled at UPO. “I still love what I do,” he says. “I get up at 5:30 every morning raring to go.”