Top chef: Culinary grad builds career in social services

by joey  |   

Shawn Dinkins '13 - formerly with Beans Café, now at Covenant House Alaska - has built a career blending social work and culinary arts in Anchorage. (Photo by Ted Kincaid / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Meet Shawn Dinkins '13, reigning queen of the kitchen, top soup-maker of the North.

Each winter, Anchorage residents can submit soup recipes for the Empty Bowl Project - Beans Café's largest fundraising event of the year. The soup kitchen then takes top contenders to a public vote in a citywide taste-testing roadshow. Shawn's victory this March earned her the three-peat; she's now headlined the charity meal's menu since 2015. Her soup-stirring prowess even earned her a job with Children's Lunchbox, a Beans Café program that delivers meals to hungry kids citywide.

So what sets Shawn's soups apart? She's coy about her blue ribbon recipes, as she should be. "I guess it's just the love and the flavors I put in my soup," she noted.

Today, she's the kitchen coordinator at Covenant House Alaska, a teen shelter in downtown Anchorage, where she's again combining her interest in social work with her love of cooking. In addition, Shawn is developing a culinary training program for shelter residents, adding another interest - one she learned at UAA - in education.

Serving soup for social services

Shawn is a lifelong cook from a big family in Pittsburgh, where she grew up helping her mom in the kitchen. She's carried that tradition on today. "My kids don't even like to go out to eat, they'd rather just me cook at home," she said with a smile.

Already an established cook, Shawn decided to enroll at UAA to reach the next level of pay and opportunities in the field.

"Cooking makes me happy," she said. "I think it's important to do what you love."

The social services angle only inspires her more. "I have a lot of family [who are] in social work," she added. "I know we've always given back to the community. It's just in our nature."

That combination of interests led her to volunteer at Beans Café, and eventually work for the organization. When an opportunity at Covenant House Alaska emerged, she was well qualified for the kitchen coordinator role.

Covenant House Alaska provides shelter and services for at-risk youth from its location in downtown Anchorage. Last year, the organization served 2,331 youth and prepared 72,000 meals. Though there's a pot of soup available 24 hours a day in the dining hall, Shawn's work primarily involves planning and preparing menus (including summertime garden barbecues).

The shelter provides 60 beds, and welcomes walk-ins from the street. Given the population she works with, her meals need to be as nutritious as possible. She can't be sure when she'll see a resident again, or from where their next meal will come. The three-meals-a-day menu (plus a snack) follows USDA recommendations, much like a school lunch program. "No salt, no sweets, just nutritional," she said.

Training teens for culinary careers

Working with youth in crisis can be a challenge, but she knows she plays a valuable role for the residents.

"It's rewarding. It's so rewarding," she said of the opportunity to engage outside the kitchen. Unlike a standard restaurant, Shawn is just as much a fixture in front of the serving window as behind.

During meal times, Shawn will stop by the tables to check in on the kids and provide some encouragement. "Seeing the smile on their faces [as they eat] a good, hot, nourishing meal, and just being kind and trying to make a difference," she said, trailing off in reflection. "They see that somebody cares."

Every day she sees a new face coming through the doors, and she tries to inspire them as best she can. She's hopeful about each one. "They can get back on their feet," she said.

That belief, in part, sparked a new program to get youth in the kitchen. "I'm excited to be a part of it," she said.

The plan: teach Covenant House Alaska residents the inner workings of the kitchen, giving them an entry point to first jobs outside the shelter. Shawn is developing a curriculum that covers everything from proper hand washing to safe knife handling. "Eventually we'll start them cooking, washing dishes, mopping floors, all that. Getting them ready for the work place," she said.

She credits UAA's culinary faculty - specifically, the equal treatment every student receives - for inspiring her to teach.

To prepare herself for this new direction, Shawn is back on campus this summer, enrolled in a night class on human relations in the workplace. It's her first step towards a new goal: earning a bachelor's degree in social work from UAA.

Given her interests, it's an excellent fit.

Curious about Shawn's cooking? Want to get involved?

Covenant House offers a range of volunteer opportunities, including helping prepare and serve meals alongside Shawn in the kitchens.

Beans Café likewise offers food prep volunteer options for both their main café and Children's Lunchbox program.

And if you want to try Shawn's award winning soups, this year's winner - a zesty fiesta vegetarian soup - is available for purchase at the Beans Café admin offices (1020 E. 4th Ave.). All proceeds benefit the soup kitchen's operations. Call 907-433-8601 with questions.

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