Right off the bat, Allison Sosna tells me what she’s all about: “My life revolves around food and people.” Of course others in the food industry could say the same, but Sosna’s work as executive chef for Fresh Start Catering at DC Central Kitchen is a little different. Every day she and her team make 600 meals that go to students at a public charter school in Columbia Heights and disadvantaged boys at the Washington Jesuit Academy in Northeast DC.
“I’m a chef, but at the heart of it, I’m more of a food anthropologist,” Sosna says. She works with a niche that needs a lot of attention, so part of her job is talking to the kids, learning about social inequalities and about who’s cooking what at home. She finds a way to connect with the kids and gives them reasons to eat the healthy food she serves. Most often with the middle school boys at WJA, the reason is sports. “You recognize what makes them have fun. So it’s ‘Eat more of this so you can be a better athlete, a better dancer.’ You teach them that there’s a reason for everything they put in their bodies.”
Along with the challenge of connecting with the kids, there’s the challenge of just getting them to eat what’s on the plate. “Kids are the hardest demographic to feed. They eat with their eyes, so food has to look good. Their palates are built on salt and sugar,” Sosna says. But, she adds, kids actually love veggies. The proof is in the lunch hour when I saw 13-year-old boys literally run to the salad bar, loading their plates with lettuce and vegetables. The same kids joked with one another over cups of granola and while biting into fresh, local apples. I wanted video footage of this to show to every naysaying parent in the world who thinks it’s easier to just feed their kid chicken nuggets because they don’t want a battle over broccoli.
Sosna’s journey to DC Central Kitchen is an interesting one (and if you’ve read anything about her, it’s probably one you’ve heard before). She studied at American University, where her minor in sociology had a lasting effect. “Food is like the pinnacle of sociology–it’s government, art, economics, everything,” she says. Sosna also went abroad to Italy where she noticed the relationship people had with food there, and started thinking about doing something more with her career. She later graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine and worked at restaurants around DC, including Chef Geoff’s, Lia’s, Hook, the Inn at Little Washington and Dean & Deluca.
But then Sosna changed gears. “I remember the synergy and energy at DCCK. It’s like when you start dating someone and right away you know if it will work or not. I knew this was it,” she says. Now she works with a team of cooks who are graduates of DCCK’s culinary job training program and have a “second-lease on life.” You can see the mentoring happening when the cooks chat with the kids at WJA as they move down the lunch line. They’re not just shuffling through and getting a plate–they’re talking with the cooks, they’re exchanging little lessons. “I’ve learned stuff here that I’d never learn in fine dining. Every cook wants to be here and it’s not just a job” she says. Working for DCCK and Fresh Start Catering, “fosters a lot of growth personally and professionally,” according to Sosna.
For more of my interview with Sosna, check back at 3 PM. Plus there will be a recipe for her simple meatloaf…