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Cooking on the Hill

Ikimi Dubose, the 26-year-old head chef for the House of Representatives, dishes on cooking for both Capitol Hill and the White House.

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Ikimi Dubose, 26, rises at 4 A.M. every morning to get to work on Capitol Hill in time by 5. Before the United States Congress commences with a flurry of meetings and hearings and news conferences, its members have to fuel up—and as head chef for the House of Representatives’ Rayburn Building, Dubose is the woman who sees to it.

“Our customers are very opinionated,” she says with a laugh, after another busy lunchtime in the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria, which she has overseen for the past year. “I find that the Congressmen and Senators are more relaxed, while their staff tends to be a lot pickier.” Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., for example, a big fan of her tacos, keeps his orders simple. “But from staff members I’ll get questions about ingredients in the ketchup, and requests to have meals prepared a particular way.”

Dubose, however, is well-prepped for the responsibilities she shoulders. Having made a name for herself at 21, when she became the youngest food and beverage manager ever for Marriott International hotels, the Brooklyn native had to mature quickly during her teen years. At age 15, Dubose bounced between living with different family members before deciding to get her own place. “It was a rough time, but I would never change it because it gave me a lot of strength.” She began supporting herself with a part-time job at the World Trade Center Marriott kitchen and went on to win a culinary school scholarship from the Careers Through Culinary Arts Program, which provides support for aspiring young urban chefs.

Her day starts with instructing a staff of 25 and conceptualizing, planning and cooking meals for around 9,000 Capitol Hill workers daily. “I accepted this position because I want to do anything that someone tells me I can’t,” says Dubose, pointing out that, as a Black female chef, she stands out among her mostly White male peers. Once a week she also reports to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who makes sure the cafeteria is thoroughly green with biodegradable utensils and local foods (such as the sustainable grilled trout on the current lunch menu).

Besides working among the powerbrokers and politicos on Capitol Hill, Dubose occasionally helps out in the White House kitchen. She confesses that the White House kitchen staff has it easier because they actually get a little help from the First Lady (apparently she still fires up the stove for the First Family). Dubose is particularly proud of lending her expertise to the White House’s National Governor’s Association dinner last February. “You’ve never seen a group of chefs so proud,” she says. “Even if they were just sprinkling something on top of the plate, everyone just really wanted to be a part of it and was so excited.”

Working on Capitol Hill during the Obama administration is a thrill for Dubose as well. “There are so many strong Black women working positions throughout the White House,” she said. “It feels great to be a Black woman in this position. We’re here achieving big things.”