More often than not, culinary school graduates will test their new expertise in the unforgiving fires of restaurant kitchens. Others, though, find themselves put to the test in different ways. For Lynn Brown, a management services assistant in the Office of the Secretary, that test includes providing culinary expertise for a Cabinet secretary, assisting with events that bring together diverse groups of stakeholders and partners, and making sure everything is “just right” when dignitaries from across the government and around the world pay a visit to the department.
Brown discovered his love of cooking at home in Seat Pleasant, Md., all the way back in the third grade, when he began cooking most of the family meals. His mother would oversee the work and guide Lynn as he prepared dinner. Food was an important part of home life, and Brown became the keeper of a rich culinary history with roots in his mother’s hometown of St. Stephen, S.C. He took his first formal culinary class in high school, where he realized that all his informal experience at home had given him an advantage. “I was the only one who knew what he was doing,” he said.
After high school, Brown enrolled briefly in community college before learning about the Job Corps program from his brother. The opportunity to enroll at the Woodland Job Corps center in Laurel, Md., which provides free training and education to at-risk or low-income young people, relieved the financial burdens of a young man with remarkable drive and energy, but limited means.
Because of that drive, Brown stood out from many of his fellow Job Corps students. Success in Job Corps, Brown said, “is all dependent on the reason” someone comes to the program, and “if you stay focused, that’s how the program works.” While in Job Corps, Brown received advanced training in culinary arts at Anne Arundel Community College, where he mastered the vocabulary and craft of cooking to complement his early experiments in the kitchen.
Brown compares his Job Corps experience favorably to both college and the type of professional apprenticeships that many young cooks pursue in the restaurant industry in lieu of formal education. “If you stay focused and you have a certain relationship with the instructors, it can be better [than college],” Brown said. He is particularly grateful for the enduring relationship he cultivated with Chef Monique Williams, his instructor at Anne Arundel and herself a Job Corps graduate.
“Chef Moe,” as she is known to students, was thrilled when Brown called her to tell her about his new position at the Labor Department. “I called her up, like ‘Chef, you wouldn’t believe…’ I told her. She was like ‘See, that’s what I’m talking about! We’re all so proud of you.’ That was good to hear from her.”
Tracey Schaeffer is the director of management support services in the Office of the Executive Secretariat and Brown’s supervisor. She believes that having Brown in the secretary’s office has improved the efficiency and flexibility of the department’s event planning and management: “The knowledge and experience that Lynn has obtained while in Job Corps has already proven to be invaluable in day-to-day operations, as well as with secretarial meetings and events — I don’t know what we would do or did without him!”
While food may not seem that important in the daily administration of government, it plays an essential role in coalition-building and outreach among the diverse groups with which the department engages to improve the lives of working people. Cristeta Comerford, who has served the president and his family as the White House executive chef since 2005, was referring to this quality when she noted that “politics divides men, but food really unites them.”
A reliable place to go for a definitive verdict on a chef’s work, though, is often the favored customer who occupies a restaurant’s corner table day after day. In Brown’s case, that diner is also the one who can best describe the contributions Brown makes to the department.
“Every time I see Lynn preparing a meal or setting up for an important event, I’m reminded of the thousands of young people who train, connect with opportunities and pursue their dreams at our Job Corps centers,” Secretary Solis said. “His presence in the office is a daily reinforcement of my fundamental belief that these programs work.
“And his cooking is tremendous. He makes magic in that modest little kitchen.”
This story was originally published on April 16, 2012.