By D. Kevin McNeir
During his formative years in Southeast Washington, D.C., Donald Mayo, 41, became all-too-familiar with the dangers associated with life on the streets – even allowing its allure to draw him into making a series of bad choices that eventually landed him in prison at just 18 years of age.
But he refused to allow a hostile environment or incarceration for nearly five years to serve as the epitaph of his life. Instead, Mayo, known professionally as “Chef Donald,” set his sights on a different and more positive path that would result in a successful career as a culinary entrepreneur, restauranteur, and one of the most highly-sought after celebrity chefs in the nation.
He said he decided to take advantage of every opportunity possible, unwilling to be another statistic or a poster boy for how society often negatively perceives young, urban, Black men. “I did what I had to do to survive when I was a teenager, and I paid the price,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee that you will make it and be able to accomplish your goals or that your dreams and desires can come true. And I had dreams – big dreams.”
After being released from prison, Chef Donald said he knew he had to do something different if he didn’t want to find himself caught in the revolving door of recidivism. So, he enrolled in college after seeing several ads on TV.
“I had never had a job before going to jail but I had always been interested in being a chef so I spoke with a recruiter from Stratford University and applied for financial aid,” he said. “Two years later, I graduated and was on my way to a career in culinary arts. But it wasn’t easy – I went to school fulltime and also worked for the USDA fulltime in their kitchen where I learned the ropes.”
Chef Donald said he often felt like he had to work three times harder than the person who had traveled the more “traditional” path – graduating from high, going to college for a degree, and entering the job market. “I was determined to catch up with my peers,” he said. “Somehow, I knew that being a prodigy no matter what field or skill may come naturally to you isn’t enough. While he now spends most of his time on the West Coast as a celebrity chef and entrepreneur, Chef Donald previously worked in his hometown of D.C. as the sous chef at the Washington Convention. Center – a job he performed with such efficiency that he could parlay his creativity, culinary skills, and engaging personality into a position with the then-Washington Redskins.
“I always paid attention to my surroundings and kept my eye out for opportunities,” he said. “As the executive Chef for the Redskins, I was responsible for network catering and for guiding catering for the entire stadium.” He moved to California in 2016. Less than a month later, he was interviewing for work on an event at the home of celebrity Will Smith.
In 2020, about a year before the pandemic shut down businesses across the U.S., Chef Donald accepted an offer to join a new restaurant. He would be the executive Chef while also consulting on all kinds of things – from kitchen design to the menu and the uniforms for his employees. Then the unimaginable happened. “We’d been open one year, almost, and were about to celebrate our one-year anniversary on March 15,” he said. “But we had to close the doors two days later on St. Patrick’s Day, so it was a brief celebration.”
Despite the economic impact of COVID-19, Chef Donald forged ahead. “Since 2020, I’ve pretty much been on my own. Even with the pandemic, celebrity clients reached out to me after hearing that the restaurant had closed. They still had to eat and they still needed the kind of service that I provided. So, I refocused my efforts as a celebrity chef and business actually picked up 1000%.”
Chef Donald said his plans for the immediate future include using his recent certification as a minority business to expand his reach, pitching ideas to arenas, convention centers, major grocery outlets, and even major corporations. But he also wants to find a way to mentor youth. “I would love to one day return to D.C. and establish an entrepreneurial program for young people–some type of catering coursework that will show them how to get into the industry,” he said.
He added that previous or current trials and tribulations people encounter do not have to define them. “I’m proof that if you can manipulate the food game, you will always have a job. Young people need to consider recession-proof jobs and careers. And whether we’re in the midst of a recession or not, one thing’s for sure – people have to eat,” he said. For more information about Chef Donald, visit www.saucyds.shop or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.