02/13/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Women's Work

By Marianne Ali, Director of Culinary Job Training, D.C. Central Kitchen

How many times have you heard someone say "The best chefs in the world are men?" Usually, when people repeat that old line, they're trying to convince a male that cooking isn't 'women's work,' that it isn't unmanly to prepare a meal. These folks mean well. But their good intentions can go bad, fast - especially if you're a woman who wants to be one of those great chefs.

In the culinary profession, most of the power is held by men. At DC Central Kitchen, we train people who have felt powerless - either due to addiction, incarceration, or long-term unemployment - to take control of their lives and find work in our city's kitchens. For most of our history, the overwhelming majority of our trainees were men, usually with histories of homelessness or substance abuse. In time, however, we made the strategic choice to seek out more at-risk women for our program. Most of the men who come to us for skills and second chances are single, often estranged from their families. The women, however, are usually primary caregivers and single parents. Teach a man to fish, you might say, and you change his life. Teach a woman the same thing, and you change the lives of her whole family.

Our efforts to empower at-risk women have presented some unique challenges. When women apply for enrollment at DCCK, we ask tough questions about their housing situations and home lives, helping them work through the difficult potential scenarios that lead many women to miss work and drop out of supportive programs like ours. We have developed special partnerships with other agencies to help women secure stable childcare while they are enrolled in our program. And recently, we have begun reaching out to area prisons and reentry programs, identifying female ex-offenders and guiding them into our program before they end up on the streets.

Once our female trainees are enrolled in our program, the real work begins. It's hard enough being a woman in a male-dominated industry. It's almost impossible if you feel like you have no self-worth. An astonishing number of the women of our program come to us with histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Destructive relationships with men are commonplace, as is the generational repetition of catastrophic mistakes.

That said, even though the women who come to us could easily be described as broken, we aren't in the business of 'fixing' people. Instead, we connect them with their inner source of strength through our rigorous Self-Empowerment Curriculum, special support group for female trainees, and special mentoring relationships with Les Dames d'Escoffier, a professional network of women in the food industry. Anyone who can live through abuse, addiction, or prison has already got some righteous 'life skills' - we just help them redirect that resiliency in a way that inspires them to break out of dangerous behavior patterns.

At DCCK, we're doing our part to advance women in the culinary industry. Our program, once 80% to 90% male, saw a near-even gender ratio in 2012. We're helping our female graduates recover custody of their children, secure stable housing, and pursue continuing education. And we're creating jobs. In addition to the dozens of female graduates who work at DCCK earning living wages and full health benefits, most members of our culinary training team are women.

We show our female students that they can succeed in the workplace and build successful home lives. We show our male students that having strong women around is an asset, not a threat. Each day, DC Central Kitchen and its trainees prove that professional cooking can be women's work - work that transforms households and strengthens our community.

You can join us in shortening the line and empowering men and women to change their lives. Visit our Crowdrise page and make a contribution today. Your contribution helps us reach our goal of winning $150,000 from the Skoll Foundation. Tell your friends and spread the word.

Learn more about DC Central Kitchen. Visit our website at