Markeeta wakes up before dawn to chase her chef dreams
By Dan Geringer
Markeeta Henderson woke up at 3 a.m. Sunday in her Germantown apartment, walked to Wayne Junction Station, caught the Regional Rail train to Jefferson Station, took the Market-Frankford El to 69th Street, and rode the 109 bus to Swarthmore, Delaware County, where her workday as a Broad Table Tavern line cook began at 5:30 a.m.
“I won’t lie,” Henderson said. “When I get home after work, I’m always tired, always sleepy. One thing keeps me going: I love what I do. This is what I’m going to do in life. I always heard the expression ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ and never understood it. Now I do. Yes, I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
A year ago, Henderson was rudderless, hopeless, lost. “I had no idea what I was going to do with my life,” she said, “none whatsoever.”
She was working as a bouncer at a South Philly sports bar.
“Long hours until 2:30 a.m., standing on my feet 16 hours a day, mostly dealing with drunks,” she said. “It takes a toll, you know?”
Her two school-age children have lived for five years with her ex-husband in South Carolina because she couldn’t provide a stable home and earn enough income to care for them. She misses them. She wants them back.
In the depths of her despair, Henderson watched her sister Amanda Dobbs, 42, who had suffered through years of depression, graduate from Philabundance Community Kitchen, a free, 14-week culinary vocational-training program in North Philadelphia for low-income women and men that has helped 700 graduates enter the workforce since 2000.
Dobbs, who went on to create her own successful catering business, Virtuous Foods & Events, urged Henderson to take the course.
The Philabundance life-skills training, Henderson said, turned out to be much tougher for her than the culinary lessons.
“You have to be willing to open up about yourself and look in the proverbial mirror and see the person that’s looking back at you,” she said. “It forces you to own up to the mistakes you’ve been making, mistakes that make you go through the same circle over and over again. Then you make a decision to change that person, or you walk away.
“A lot of people come into the program and don’t last,” Henderson said. “There were 22 people in my class, and only eight finished. You have to really want it. I’ve been through so much that I have no choice but to be strong.”
Henderson’s Philabundance life-skills coach, Shontae Graham, had been her older sister Amanda’s coach just six months earlier.
“Markeeta’s journey with me started even before I met her,” he said, “because she was super-dependent on her older sister Amanda, and her older sister was struggling to take care of everyone in the family. I told Amanda, ‘Markeeta has to sink or swim on her own. You are no longer her surrogate parent.’ And I told Markeeta, ‘You have to stop depending on Amanda.’
“I told her, ‘When things get difficult, when life gets confusing, you still have to show up at work and do your job, while you figure things out.” Henderson did her internship so well at Broad Table Tavern that she was hired on the third day.
She said she has channeled the cooking skills passed down from her mother, who cooked for years at Big George’s Stop-N-Dine, the well-known 1990s West Philly soul-food restaurant at the corner of 52nd and Spruce Streets. At home, she made Sunday dinners of fried flounder, collard greens, and potato salad that remain a fond family memory today, five years after her death.
Henderson hopes to one day use her cooking skills to run her own catering business. “I’m going to name it Kathy May’s in memory of my mom,” she said. Now that she has a stable home and makes a living wage, Henderson hopes to reunite with her children by the summer.
That’s the dream that motivates her to wake up in the middle of the night and take public transportation for two hours to her job, traveling toward the new morning and better days ahead.