Program Puts High School Students in Kitchens of D.C.'s Top Chefs

Imagine getting the chance to learn at the side of some of D.C.'s top chefs as a high school student. Just such a program, which faltered in recent years, recently got a big helping hand.

While many of his friends were home playing video games, 17-year-old Ramon Hagins spent the summer learning to stand the heat in the kitchen of Chef Fabio Trabocchi, a past James Beard Foundation Best Chef awardee.

Without the benefit of family connections or an impressive resume, the Bowie High School student is absorbing the discipline and rigorous standards that make Fiola in the Penn Quarter area of Northwest a destination for food lovers.

“The type of food they have here is unique,” Ramon said. “I’ve never seen it before.”

For 15 years, Yvette Williams and her husband, Troy, a professional chef, have been the face of the non-profit Careers Through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) in schools in Prince George's County, Md., and the District. The program helps deserving students with paid internships and culinary school tuition.

“What we teach first is discipline,” Troy Williams said. “Kitchen’s all about discipline, so if you get the discipline, you’ll go a long way.”

Interest in the program declined in recent years, and local chefs got busy as D.C. became a "foodie" destination.

That changed dramatically this summer when attorney-turned-restaurateur Mark Kuller, whose wine-centric Proof in Penn Quarter helped put D.C.'s restaurant scene on the national radar, got involved.

“Almost every chef I wrote to, every restaurateur, responded that they would be happy to sponsor an intern,” he said. “We immediately had an opportunity to place about 25 interns. I don’t think we even ended up with that many interns to place.”

C-CAP awarded Ramon a full three-year scholarship to culinary school. He goes armed with faith in himself and the belief that with lots of skill, discipline and luck, he might be the next Fabio Trabocchi, or the next Mark Kuller.

“The long-term goal is hopefully own my own restaurant,” Ramon said.

The C-CAP program had a longtime presence in D.C. Public Schools, but it’s fallen off in recent years. Organizers would like to rekindle that involvement.

Some of the graduates of the program have gone on to accomplish amazing things. Earlier this year, Carlton McCoy, who participated in C-CAP at Anacostia High School in 2002, earned the title master sommelier. Only about 200 wine experts in the world have received that distinction.

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