A culinary facelift

It’s not just the food in the Ford House Office Building’s cafeteria that’s getting a makeover next week. The new face in the cafeteria is that of Ikimi Dubose, who has been hired to revamp the Ford cafeteria at the tender age of 25.

Maybe that’s just the right fit, since the average age of staffers on the Hill falls between 25 and 30.

“Ford needs a different image,” said a confident Dubose, who, like the cuisine she prepares, is an international blend of Cantonese, French, Japanese and African-American ancestry and uses her hands to emphasize each word. “It needs to get customers more interested.”

Dubose has experience well beyond her years.

She comes to the position after serving as the youngest food and beverage manager Marriott Worldwide hotels had ever seen, and previously worked as a sous-chef (second in command) at several mid-sized Marriott International hotels around the country.

At Ford, Dubose is introducing new cuisine, including a “Global Station” that will serve a different country’s food each week. She also plans to provide more fresh fish options, such as mahi-mahi and haddock, and will put an emphasis on providing organic meats for the cafeteria’s deli.

Dubose is confident about her choices, but that does not calm her nerves as she prepares her take on the Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Latin and Asian foods that will be available. Dubose wants to bring this worldly cuisine to the new Ford cafeteria, but she wonders if she can please everyone’s tastes.

“You don’t always have the time to ask everyone what they want,” said Dubose, donning traditional kitchen garb: white chef shirt, black pants and black crocs. “So I wonder, are people really going to be into the food? I think it’s a risk, but it’s worth it.”

If taking over the Ford cafeteria is a huge challenge, Dubose seems uniquely prepared to handle it.

Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., she began financially supporting herself at 15 after her mother remarried and moved out of state. For a few years, she bounced around and lived with different family members. At one point, she even endured a period of homelessness, she said.

Dubose’s culinary dreams took flight when she won a high school competition hosted by the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (CCAP), which offered her a scholarship to attend Johnson & Wales University for culinary management.

“She wasn’t the typical person that you would think would be a potential [candidate] for [a culinary career], but she had the drive, a very good palate and good hands,” said Richard Grausman, founder and president of CCAP.

Grausman and CCAP provide financial and emotional support for aspiring young chefs, such as Dubose, as a means to overcome trying circumstances.

“I was just looking for someone to get behind me, what I do, and my ideas,” Dubose said.

She joined Marriott after earning her degree, and also dabbled a bit in reality television by auditioning for a part in “Hell’s Kitchen,” the hit show hosted by the acerbic English chef Gordon Ramsay.

“They put you in a demo kitchen and a panel watched,” recalled Dubose. “They want to see you get angry, so somebody would come by and pour salt in your soup or something like that.”

Eventually she let them see what they wanted and they liked it. “I ended up throwing a frying pan at the panel and everyone ducked,” she said. “And the next thing I know I was getting invited back.”

In the end, Dubose decided not to do the show because of time constraints, saying that the schedule is very demanding and she might have had to quit her job.

Dubose is working for Restaurant Associates (RA), which at Ford is taking over the last of four House cafeterias it will run. The Skenteris family, which served feta and meat omelets, gyros and other specialties at Ford for the past 14 years, is moving across the street to the Voice of America building.

Dubose, who began working for RA in the Longworth cafeteria in December 2007, has approached the situation carefully, considering that appetites and habits are nothing to toy with.

“I’ve talked with employees who used to work in Ford and now are in Longworth and I’ve gone down there myself to have lunch,” she said. “And you’ve got to keep some of the traditions, like Wednesday fried chicken day. You don’t want to anger people who want fried chicken.”

Tom Greene, the executive chef who oversees all House cafeterias, recognized Dubose’s wisdom beyond her years the first time he spoke with her about the position.

“I hung up the phone and I knew right away,” said Greene.

He also praised Dubose’s ability to handle employees.

“The main thing is to keep your employees motivated,” said Dubose. “The best thing is to have them happy to come to work. You have to point out when people do an awesome job because it gives them a sense of pride in what they do.”

She paused and grinned.

“I can definitely be tough, though,” she said.

Dubose, while confident, is in shock at the amount of responsibility bestowed on her. “This is a big chance. No matter what they say, they’re taking a chance that I probably wouldn’t take if I were Chef Tom,” said Dubose, referring to the executive chef who hired her.