PITTSFIELD — Dennis Powell is an accomplished chef. He enjoys mixing together numerous ingredients to create meals. One-pot cooking is what this graduate and former faculty member at the Culinary Institute of America calls it.
Powell is president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, an organization that he helped revive in 2012. In Pittsfield, the NAACP is interested in bringing together different elements of the community to create more diversity in city government and city schools. One-pot cooking, indeed.
We spoke with the Pittsfield native recently about his cooking career and his involvement in public service.
QYou’ve had a pretty interesting career working in the private sector and being involved in public service through your work with the NAACP. How did this all come about?
AI think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was always fascinated with cooking, really spending most of my time sitting in the kitchen watching my grandmother. That was sort of twofold. We were a family of five, and I always knew that if I was in the kitchen, I would get to eat more than my brothers and sisters.
QWhat fascinated you about cooking?
AI never knew how she did it, but my grandmother could take a pinch of this and a pinch of that and with no measurements turn out a bread or a cake, and that was fascinating. I was actually the only male in home economics [in grade school]. I remember we made Swedish meatballs in home economics. I thought I had really done something, you know?
QHow did you end up at the Culinary Institute?
AWhen I got out of high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I decided to go into the service and get that out of the way. ... I didn’t like it, but they liked me because I’m a person that always believes that once you commit to something, you commit 300 percent. So, I was an excellent soldier.
After I got out of the service, I started working at GE like everybody else. ... When it came time for a promotion, I knew I wasn’t happy at GE. I had heard about the Culinary Institute, so I decided to use my GI Bill and go to school. ...
After graduation, I was awarded a teaching fellowship, so I spent an additional year in school. ... After that year, I went to New York City because I was told that if you could be successful in New York, you could be successful anywhere. ... I started at the Waldorf Astoria in food and beverages. ...
I was the restaurant manager at a place on the corner of 34th [Street] and 11th [Avenue]. I was really the first Black manager that that restaurant had. It was one of those hotels where Billie Holiday used to sing. ... In 1977, I became president of the Alumni Association [at the Culinary Institute]. ... I put together a team of American chefs and we went to Basel, Switzerland, entered the international cooking competition, competed against 17 other countries and we won.
QSo, how did the NAACP figure in to all of this?
AI was involved as a youth [the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP was founded in 1918, nine years after the national organization was formed]. Back then, the NAACP was really made up of the Black Masons and the Eastern Star. ... It was pretty big back then. ... They had huge chapters.
QI’ve heard you say that Pittsfield was more racially diverse in the workforce, in city government and in the city schools during the 1960s than it is now. What’s changed?
AI think what changed is that when GE left, everything became really sparse in jobs and whatnot. ... So, everybody wanted to take care of their own. It really became employment through nepotism than really having a diverse workforce. ... That’s one of the reasons why we reactivated the NAACP. ... We needed 50 members to reactivate and we got 50 just like that. ... Now, we have over 700.
QThe county’s economy is slowly beginning to redefine itself. Would an economic recovery bring back the racial diversity in the workforce and schools that Pittsfield had back in the 1960s?
AWe’re still behind. And we still have been moving very slow. ... We’re not where we should be at in our city government as far as diversity is concerned. We’re not where we should be at in the Pittsfield Public Schools. We’ve made some progress, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.
QWhat is the NAACP’s role in trying to change this locally?
AUnfortunately, the last couple of years we’ve been just really combating hate, and you can see it, unfortunately, throughout our community. Because of 45 [President Donald Trump], we really have gone backwards with all the protests and just trying to fight what’s been happening with law enforcement.
My niece became the first Black female police officer in Pittsfield just a couple of years ago, so I’ve never been against the police. But, if you’re a human being, you’ve got to be against this senseless killing of brown and Black people where bad officers used the power of the badge to commit murder, and it’s unfortunate, because it gives a bad reflection on police officers, which is unfortunate because it shouldn’t.
When I grew up, when I walked home from the Boys’ Club, I was happy to see a police officer, because I felt safe. Unfortunately, the kids today don’t have the same feeling when they see a police officer. So, the whole culture of policing has to be looked at and really changed. ... I think people are realizing that.
QThe NAACP is the county’s oldest civil rights organization. It’s seen more as an establishment organization in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. So, where does the NAACP fit in, and how does it stay relevant under the current conditions?
AThe NAACP was founded because of the senseless lynchings that were happening. That was the premise that it was founded on. ... This is the same thing when you think about it. We’ve gone from the rope to the bullet. So, it’s an NAACP fight. It’s the same thing that the NAACP has been addressing for years. It’s about equal justice for all.
QWhat needs to change in Pittsfield and the Berkshires to bring back the diversity that was more prevalent during the 1960s?
AWe just really need to understand that everything is really made up of everybody, and everybody counts within the community. ... Everybody has something that they can offer. ...
I look at Greylock Federal Credit Union. The leadership there with [president and CEO] John Bissel. He understood and knows what redlining [a discriminatory banking practice that often targeted the Black community] is and the effects that it had on the community. ... When you walk into one of his branches, you see diversity. ... He is a prime example of how other businesses within the community can start opening up their doors, become more culturally competent and diversify their workforce.
QGetting back to food, what cuisine do you like the best?
AI love Italian. I love any peasant cuisine.
When I had my restaurant [the former Wendell House Bistro in Pittsfield], it was sort of a melting pot, mostly Southern Creole and Italian, because I love what I call one-pot cooking ... the bouillabaisses, the jambalayas, the gumbos. ... You’ve got all these ingredients coming together in one pot creating this marriage of flavors.
QDo you still cook?
AYeah, actually my son [Jabari] has MadJack’s [a barbecue restaurant in Lanesborough]. I’m always in there helping out. I call myself retired. But, I don’t know how to. I’ve been busy all my life.