“Is the chef there?”
It’s Thursday morning, and a bilingual receptionist at the Carlos Rosario International School in Columbia Heights is on the phone trying to locate executive chef and LEDC client Benjamin Velasquez.
Walking the noisy halls in a chef’s top hat and a crisp, white apron, Benjamin immigrated to Silver Spring, Maryland 27 years ago. Having left his native El Salvador at the age of 19 to escape the perils of civil war, Benjamin’s first days in the United States mirrored those of many first-generation immigrants. His world, he remembers, had been turned “upside down.” Leaving behind his initial ambitions to become a lawyer, Benjamin was hired as a dishwasher in Washington, DC for his first job.
“When you are a dishwasher, you’re all wet, and you don’t know if you’re wet because you’re sweating or because of the water from the pots and pans,” Benjamin says.
After four years as a line cook, front line chef, and kitchen supervisor, Benjamin decided to enroll in a culinary arts school on the weekends while working two full-time jobs during the week. As he learned the art of European and Asian cooking from chefs at international embassies, his work at the Washington Hilton Hotel gave him the unique opportunity to help cook for six American heads of state. These difficult, but rewarding years allowed him to learn about the food of other cultures and develop his specialty – international and European cuisine.
When the Rosemount Center, a bilingual Head Start Center located in Mount Pleasant, offered him the opportunity to cook for their 150 students and 40 teachers as an independent contractor, Benjamin seized the opportunity to obtain the necessary regulatory documents and start his first job as a professional caterer. Shortly thereafter, Benjamin started his own personal catering business, Catering by Benjamin, after years of informal catering for church events in the community.
With the help of a microloan from LEDC in 2009, Benjamin successfully expanded his catering business into the greater DC Latino community. LEDC’s financial assistance helped Benjamin purchase a new cargo van that now helps him transport food from his kitchen space at the Rosemount Center to catering events around town.
“Now I can not only work in an enclosed facility, but I have the capacity to mobilize a whole kitchen from Place A to Place B,” Benjamin says. “[LEDC] always makes you feel welcome.”
While the economic crisis has hurt Benjamin like many others in the service industry, Benjamin is optimistic that the Latino community’s growing interest in professional catering services and the loyalty of his customers will help him during the slower months. In the meantime, as a teacher of 30 culinary art students every year at Carlos Rosario, Benjamin continues to enjoy teaching students in the DC metro area the art of cooking.
“It’s very rewarding when I see my students graduate because they are all immigrants,” Benjamin says. “This work really gives you a lot of satisfaction because you see them grow and work.”