The D.C. Central Kitchen prepares and delivers 5,000 meals a day for the city’s homeless and residents in need. The man who sets menus and supervises food preparation at the kitchen holds a title rare among charities. He is Celebrity Chef Rahman “Rock” Harper.
Harper earned the Celebrity Chef moniker after winning the third season of the Fox Network reality show Hell’s Kitchen, hosted by world-renowned Chef Gordon Ramsey in 2007. Before going on the show, he served as chef at Ben’s Next Door on U Street NW and B. Smith’s at Union Station. His victory on Hell’s Kitchen came by conquering challenges and overcoming obstacles during a stretch of 30 strenuous days, Harper says.
“There were always hidden messages [in challenges] everyday,” says the 35-year-old chef who is a Chicago native. “After a while I would see that… and I would sort of be one up.” Harper thinks that his resourcefulness and creativity are what led him to victory.
“I learned a tremendous amount about cooking and management of myself and other people as well,” Harper says about his experience on the show. The victory earned him the right to call himself a celebrity chef and a one-year contract with Terra Verde in Henderson, Nev.
Five years have passed, and Harper has undertaken many projects since his victory. So how did he end up at D.C. Central Kitchen? Harper has been a long-time friend of the kitchen, and he was a member of the kitchen’s board before being offered his current position late last year.
“I chose to put my focus here to show that…this is an avenue that [celebrity chefs] can take,” Harper says.
D.C. Central Kitchen’s role in the community is to provide meals throughout the city to those in need. Its mission is to combat hunger while creating opportunity. It does this by recycling about 3,000 pounds of food that is donated by farmers, restaurants and other sources each day. It also operates a successful culinary training program.
As director of kitchen operations of DCCK, Harper oversees the operations, systems and preparation of food that D.C. Central Kitchen produces. He makes sure that 5,000 meals are prepared and delivereddaily. Both ready-to-serve hot and cold meals are delivered. Some places in the District of Columbia that reap benefits from DCCK’s work are shelters like La Casa and John L. Young and schools throughout the four quadrants. Harper also supervises volunteers in the kitchen.
“He’s making a lot of good changes as far as organization, cleanliness, efficiency, morale and respect,” says Jeff Ragsdale, 43, a chef at D.C. Central Kitchen, 425 2nd St. NW.
Adds General Administrative Secretary Dawn Stephens, 39: “People aren’t afraid to ask [him] questions.”
Harper emphasizes the importance of clarity with the staff and volunteers to ensure that everything runs smoothly. He also makes it a priority to meet with the people the kitchen is serving to get feedback about the food.
“You can’t be a server and not have interaction with the people you serve,” he says. Just like at a restaurant, he explains, there are some people who enjoy the meals and some who don’t. These visits help the members of DCCK find out how to improve the experiences of the people they serve.
“This isn’t a [just] charity thing,” he explains. “This is a business thing, a personal decision. I like what I do here.”
Harper plans on working with D.C. Central Kitchen for a while. He does, however, have a few more projects on his plate. He plans to publish his second book, Rock Your Kitchen, Rock Your Love Life, in the near future. He also plans to raise funds for the March of Dimes this year as he has every year since 2008. In a kitchen, however, is the place where you will always have the best chance at finding Harper.
“Cooking is my sanctuary,” he says. “I love it and I love the people I get to meet every day.”