Dwight Lewis has a career 50 years in the making. While he’s worked in the restaurant industry off and on for most of his life, Lewis went back to school to get the certifications to allow him to become an executive chef.
“I worked as a carpenter for many years, but now I’m going into my cooking,” he says. “I love cooking. It was my hobby, but now I’ve made my hobby my profession.”
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Lewis earned a culinary arts degree at Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville, Ga., and is working on another diploma in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. He’s now employed at one of the top private country clubs in the nation.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 5 years old,” says Lewis, who also owns a small catering business. “I used to hang out by the kitchen. I would always ask my grandma or my mom, ‘What are you guys in there cooking? That smells so good. How did you make that?’
“I was just a very curious kid about food, and it carried on. By the time I was 10 years old, I was the one that did the barbecues at family functions, and by the time I was 16, my dad had opened a restaurant. He let me run it. It was right across the street from a General Motors plant, so we were busy all the time.”
But when he was 16, other interests prevailed: football, wrestling, boxing. “They all took precedence over working in a restaurant where I did 10 hours a day,” he explains. “So the business ended up going away because my dad didn’t have time to do it, and he was really preparing me for my own restaurant.”
Finding his voice later in life
For 20 years, Lewis worked in construction and, in the off season, occasionally returned to the restaurant industry. “Even when I did work in the field as a chef, whenever I was stressed out — most people would go work out at the gym or play basketball or do whatever — I went to the kitchen and just started creating different dishes,” he says. “My wife always says that she can tell when I have had a rough day, because I will go into the kitchen at 11 or 12 o’clock at night and she’ll wake up smelling the baking or something of that nature.”
In 2009, Lewis moved to Atlanta to care for his mother, who died 90 days later. At that time, jobs in construction were shrinking. He finally decided to return to school to pursue his hobby in 2012. And while he thrived as a culinary arts student, Lewis discovered hidden talents that had long gone untapped.
First there were his leadership abilities, which led to him becoming president of Gwinnett Technical College’s student council. He discovered another talent — public speaking — and won many awards through Toastmasters International.
Although instructor Penny Waddell said he would be perfect for SkillsUSA’s speech competitions, “I didn’t know if I was able to do this,” Lewis remembers. “But everyone was like, ‘Dwight, you’re a natural speaker, so just go for it.’ ”
He went all the way to the national Prepared Speech contest in Louisville, Ky. “I talked about my experiences growing up with my granddad. He was a bricklayer and a homebuilder. I told a story of how he built the foundation, and I tied that into how the SkillsUSA foundation was laid in 1965. Then I talked about how you layer success upon success through all of the different entities that take part in what we have here today, 50 years later.”
Today, he’d like to use this newfound gift as a motivational speaker. When his grandfather, who was dying of liver cancer, committed suicide, “it was a traumatic experience for me,” Lewis says. “I kind of got into trouble as a youngster with the law, being completely unruly, and I ended up going to jail. But then I had to turn my life around.” He uses this experience to help others avoid the same fate.
“My wife and I, we started a nonprofit organization. We help men and women who come out of jail; we help them find jobs,” he explains. “We want to help them so they don’t go back. I tell them, ‘Look, get involved. Go back to school. Get a trade. Get an education. Don’t go back to that area and those people that caused you to get in trouble in the first place. You have to change everything.’ ”
He’s living proof. At the country club where he works, Lewis is in training to be the assistant to the general manager. He’s also hoping to expand his family’s catering business into a high-end event facility. An international Toastmasters speech contest is coming up soon, and he’s mulling a return to the SkillsUSA competition.