As a kid, Robert Dixon spent countless happy hours in his grandparents’ Yakima garden and at his mother’s side, begging her to let him help cook. But it took years – and the country’s massive economic slump – for him to find his way into the kitchen as a professional.
Dixon, 43, now Grand Central’s kitchen lead in Seattle, credits the FareStart culinary training program with rescuing him from a low point in his life and helping him find his footing as a professional cook.
He spent his 30s doing retail and office work, and when the economy tanked, he was let go. Dixon worked some temp jobs but even that eventually dried up. “I ended up being one of those people who was unemployed for over two years,” he says. It didn’t help that he had made mistakes in the past, which, he says, “was kind of a hindrance on finding a job.”
A friend mentioned FareStart, which offers a 16-week culinary arts program to adults with barriers to success. “I just didn’t have the self-confidence to do it. He basically had to grab me by the arm and walk me down there on a Tuesday when they have their orientation.”
He enrolled on the spot, and two weeks later, he was polishing his cooking skills alongside 20 classmates. The majority of students, Dixon says, were recovering from addiction or transitioning from homelessness or incarceration. “It was eye-opening, humbling,” he says. “Everybody had a different story, but having a past made us all the same. If you weren’t understanding something, there was always someone there, another student who could say, ‘Here, let me help you. Here’s how you do it.’”
Classes taught by Seattle-area chefs were rigorous and covered the gamut: Knife skills. Kitchen Rules. Food safety. How to work with – and for – all different types of people.
Soon after starting the program, he found himself eating at Grand Central Bakery in Pioneer Square. “We were looking across the Arcade through the (kitchen) window and I said to my mom: ‘You know what? I’m going to work here one day.’”
His first job out of school was as a dishwasher at Eliot Bay Café. Dixon was happy to have a foot in the door and a paycheck. Three months later, he got a call from Grand Central’s commissary manager Laura Heinlein, offering him a job at Pioneer Square as prep cook. The timing was perfect: It was his 40th birthday, and mere hours after hearing that Eliot Bay Café was closing and he would lose his job.
On a recent cloudy Tuesday, as a kettle of chile-laced pozole simmers nearby, Dixon marvels at his good fortune. He loves working in Grand Central’s kitchen, especially the challenge of improvising with seasonal ingredients and using his palate to elevate a basic recipe into a something customers will find truly delicious. “I make tuna salad every day with the same ingredients, but every day it tastes a little different. I can say, hey, this actually needs a little less salt – the capers are really salty today.”
Three years after he started, Robert continues to build his skills and embrace the bakery’s mission of making high-quality authentic food from the very best local and sustainable ingredients. Last summer, he earned a spot in Quillasascut Farm School, where chefs learn about sustainability from farm to table and cook up a storm with just-harvested ingredients.
Back in the kitchen at Pioneer Square, he likes nothing more than to peer through the window into the Arcade and see those same tables where he sat once with his mom. “My favorite thing is when somebody takes their first bite. You can tell if they like it, or they don’t like it. You can see it on their face, for a split second – If the soup is good, you see people tiling their bowls, and trying to scoop the last bit out with their spoon. That’s what I love – seeing the appreciation that people have.”