Ever since she was a little girl growing up in north Dorchester County, De'Nijah Conaway had a passion for cooking.
She loved helping her mom Towanda in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, and doing whatever else she could to help her throw down a feast on the family table.
Ribs, her mom's favorite, were among the many down-home dishes frequently on the dinner menu. At her mother's side, she learned to appreciate the instinctive art and love of good cooking, along with good practices.
"She always made sure I had washed my fingers," Conaway recalled fondly with a smile.
That ever-present craving to create in the kitchen continued as she grew, leading her to enroll in Dorchester Career and Technology Center's Culinary Arts program taught by Chef Charlene Zinnel, Dorchester County's 2019-20 Teacher of the Year.
Now entering her final semester of the intensive two-year program, Conaway recently learned that she's been accepted for September admission to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, the nation's oldest and among the world's most prestigious universities for cooking professionals.
Founded in 1946 initially as a Connecticut vocational training school for returning World War II veterans, the school grew in size and stature to become regarded as the “Harvard” of culinary institutions.
CIA has graduated such notable chefs as Anthony Bourdain, Food Network personalities Duff Goldman, Anne Burrell and Maneet Chauhan, and thousands of others from around the world.
Under Chef Zinnel's direction, she "stepped outside her comfort zone" and learned the most basic professional essentials needed, from following recipes to mastering fundamental techniques of "dissecting" chicken, pan frying and more, Conaway recalled.
Among the first meals she recalled crafting in Zinnel's classroom kitchen was pan-fried chicken with rice pilaf and broccoli, a favorite. (While making sure to have a vegetable, Conaway loves other meat dishes like pepper steak and smothered pork chops.)
While continuing to credit her mother for her culinary foundation, "I credit Chef (Zinnel), too," Conaway said, for opening up her mind to trying things "outside my comfort zone, like learning to follow recipes, and motivating me to focus and stay on task."
Zinnel applauded Conaway's culinary talents, attention to details and ability to work well under pressure during competitive cooking challenges. But she also had high praise for other qualities that help her stand out, including her penchant for taking initiative, plus a willingness to do what's needed to get the job done, including the drudgery of cleanup.
"She might complain along with others. But she's always the one who steps up to get it done," Zinnel noted.
Her love of cooking, long simmering on the down low, ignited as a true career passion during her senior year, Conaway said. In characteristic fashion, she initiated her own online research for schools offering the best pathway forward.
Drawn at first to another highly ranked program, upon learning that it was fully online, Conaway followed Zinnel's guidance, setting her sights on CIA, applying and later making the six-hour drive to visit the pastoral upstate New York campus in person.
Another of Zinnel's student protégées, Abria Height, has attended CIA for the past two years. During a visit home last August, Height served as guest chef, preparing the School Board's monthly pre-meeting meal.
With a close, supportive family behind her, Conaway is glad to be within driving distance of home, yet excited to begin exploring more of the world and the opportunities that await, and that she might help forge for others as an African American woman in the culinary field.
While still predominantly a white, male domain, some notable inroads toward diversity are being made, Zinnel noted. One high-profile example is Kimberly Brock Brown, president of the American Culinary Federation, which accredits the DCTC program.
Initially interested in operating her own restaurant, Conaway has since learned that such a venture typically requires plenty of time and money. She's now focused on fulfilling both her love of cooking and desire to travel by becoming a personal chef.
As culinary world possibilities have opened up, Conaway has also recognized several back up interest, as well. If the time came to choose a career other than cooking, she might pursue becoming a veterinarian or therapist. "The older I get, the more I realize, I'm really a creative person," she said.
For now, Conaway's focus is fully engaged with the next steps in becoming a bona fide chef, looking forward to her final months before graduation, another visit to CIA in April, then starting there Sept. 5.