It would have been completely understandable if Chef Dethie Faye—with an industrial kitchen to helm and 147 ravenous teenagers to feed every day—declined to add “mentor” to his long list of responsibilities. But when two Commonwealth students asked if he would guide them through their cooking-inspired work for the school’s annual Project Week, he didn’t hesitate to step in. “It makes it fun for me,” he says. “It's my way of paying it forward.” That “pay it forward” philosophy has animated most of his professional life.
Though he’d never worked with high school students before coming to Commonwealth, Chef Dethie has mentored new chefs in kitchens along the Eastern Seaboard. He saw working with Rosie ’23 and Alissa ’25 during Project Week as an extension of that: Alissa wanted to explore her Portuguese heritage through molecular gastronomy, reimagining traditional desserts like passion fruit mousse (mousse de maracujá). Chef Dethie prepared by researching new pastry techniques they could try together, like creating passion fruit juice “caviar” that could be used to decorate an elaborate dessert made to resemble the fruit itself. “Essentially, she's doing restaurant-level plated desserts, and she's only in the ninth grade,” he says. At the same time, Rosie wanted to create savory foods on a grand scale, taking over kitchen operations for the week. With Chef Dethie’s guidance, she crafted a menu for each day—homemade pizza, stir fry, pasta—to glowing faculty and staff reviews.
Chef Dethie wasn’t much younger than Alissa and Rosie when he started in the kitchen—twelve or thirteen, he estimates. Growing up in a family of nine, he started cooking for a crowd early on. His mother, a prodigious baker, was an early inspiration. (His first memorable creation was a Mandarin orange cake, still a family favorite.)
As he got older, he “graduated to hot food,” Chef Dethie says, and the siblings would take turns cooking for the family, with their parents’ encouragement. “We've taught you what you need to know. Let's see what you can do,” he recalls them saying. Chef Dethie carries that spirit forward as Commonwealth’s Chef Manager, whether he’s mentoring students like Rosie and Alissa or overseeing lunch and snack clean up as part of the school’s Jobs Program. Keep reading to learn more about him and his path to Commonwealth.
Getting to Know You
What is bringing you joy right now?
This is going to sound cliché, but cooking brings me a lot of joy, especially learning new things. I like cooking a new recipe and watching it bring a smile to someone's face.
What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)?
When it comes to cooking, Mastering Pasta [by David Joachim and Marc Vetri] is up there. I love making pasta. Also, The Flavor Bible; if I'm in a creative rut, that book brings me out of it.
For non-cooking books, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is the one I like the most. It's a baseline for how efficient I would like to be and for managing my time. Another thing I love about that book is the idea that it’s not a dog-eat-dog world. I've always felt this, but the book compounded it. In cooking, you find environments where people think it's so competitive that everybody cannot succeed. But you don't have to lose for me to win; we can build as a community. That was one of my biggest takeaways as a chef. It helped me become a better leader in the kitchen.
What is the ideal pasta shape and why?
That's a loaded question! My favorite ravioli doesn't really compare to a noodle. For filled pastas, I like cappelletti. The little caps hold the sauce well, and you want the sauce to complement the filling all in one bite. For strand pasta, I like spaghetti alla chitarra. It's not too different from spaghetti, but it’s thicker and heartier, and every spoonful has just the right amount of sauce and noodle. That's the goal—the perfect middle point.
What are your favorite comfort foods?
I almost don’t want to say...but Oreos. I can eat row after row. And chicken wings—but the sauce has to be on the side. I don't want to get messy.
What was your favorite class in high school?
Web Design was probably my favorite. We learned how to code a website. That or Physics.
What three words best describe Commonwealth students?
Diverse: They have every type of schooling, and it’s this melting pot of talent, and so much talent at a young age.
Kind: They greet you, they're polite, they listen. They’re very kind students. It’s good to see.
Ambitious: I don't know all the students yet [Chef Dethie joined Commonwealth in August 2021], but I see a lot of ambition in the way they work and how they communicate with one another. It's borderline arguing! But it's because it's passionate. I can see them challenging each other. Even with Project Week [with Alissa and Rosie], you’ve got a freshman doing Modernist Cuisine and an eleventh grader who’s basically taking the reins on a hot line. That’s super ambitious.
Working at Commonwealth
What led you to Commonwealth?
Coming to Commonwealth was rooted in wanting to pay it forward, wanting to teach what I know and also wanting to learn from people. Mentoring has always been a part of my career. At my first job after Johnson & Wales [University], going from intern to sous chef taught me all about teaching and meeting people where they're at. I was able to mentor new interns in a relatable way, having been in their shoes. Afterward, when I went back home to the Philadelphia area to work at Vernick Food & Drink, I was humbled. They taught me everything I needed to know, and I watched a community of passionate individuals treat each other like family. Later, when I joined British Airways in a leadership role, I found myself teaching again but also learning.
Then the pandemic happened, and everybody lost their jobs. I ended up doing private dining. A chef friend who had already transitioned to schools reached out to me and suggested I try working at a school, too, because I like teaching. After coming here for my initial visit, speaking with [former Commonwealth Chef] Heather, and staying through the whole lunch service, I was able to see myself here, which was great.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m usually here by 5:00 a.m. and never later than 6:00. The general process is usually the same each morning: turn the lights on, check your burners, turn on the exhaust hoods, things of that nature. We [Ana Vieira Marques and Tashaun Rawls, the other members of the kitchen staff] do coffee and tea service, and breakfast, so we’re getting all of that together first. From there we have our own jobs with snacks and the hot line at lunch, though we help each other. I place myself where needed and focus on outcomes, like taking an entrée all the way to serving. I’ll go home around 3:00 p.m. most days, unless there’s an event after school [or it’s the day before Thanksgiving and Chef Dethie is here until 8:00 p.m. making a turkey feast for 200 people!]. I also have to place food orders and take care of the financials and scheduling—the front office component of it. Sometimes that takes ten minutes, sometimes two hours, depending on the day. And I can’t forget about talking with the students! I have some students that I talk to all the time, and it brightens my day.
What’s your kitchen philosophy?
It is about doing the little things right. Once you can do the simple things right, you can branch off into doing more creative things. And you don't always have to be fast. People always come into the kitchen thinking they have to rush. But sometimes you need to go at a snail’s pace to get the process right. As you do it right, you get faster by nature. Borrowing a saying from a gentleman I worked with in Philadelphia: “Speed is the reward.”
What do you wish people knew about what you do?
This is more macro than Commonwealth, but I would say I wish people knew how much went into food. For example, people often don’t understand why there might be a wait at a restaurant—there are chefs back there who are working extremely hard to get this product to you, under circumstances that you don't really understand if you’ve never worked in a kitchen. In most cases, the people who are preparing food care a lot about what they're doing and about the product that they're putting out. We want that care to translate to our food and then on to our guests. When people understand what goes into their food, it's kind of like having a family meal. The food brings joy.
What do you wish people knew about you?
My father's from Senegal, which is a predominantly Muslim country, and I've been a practicing Muslim my whole life. It factors into who I am to my core. I don't have a problem cooking when I fast during Ramadan at all; I'll have someone else taste the food for me. (Typically, I'm going to do recipes that we’re all familiar with anyway.) The only difference when I'm at work is that I'll peel off to pray, then I'll come back. It doesn't take very long at all. During the month of Ramadan in particular it is very important to me to try my best to become closer to God. And then I'll try to take whatever I can from that month and apply it to my life going forward.
What is your favorite recipe?
My favorite recipe—my prized possession—is brown butter vanilla ice cream. That's my go to, and I have that recipe down to a T. I’ve sourced a ton of recipes to develop it. Also, steak au poivre, with a cognac cream sauce. That was the first dish I learned how to make. I taught myself how because I found it interesting when I was researching French cuisine.
What do you do in your free time?
I still cook, for the most part. I like the gym in general, and basketball specifically is my favorite hobby. I’m a pretty big TV series guy—Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Ozark, Game of Thrones. Billions and Succession are at the top of my list right now.
Anything you’d like to add?
People can come down and speak with me at any point. The kitchen is not this old dungeon, and we’re not trolls! We're happy to talk, and every time we get visitors, it's always a blast. And if we’re ever too much in the weeds, we'll just say that: we’ll circle back with you later. But it's an open kitchen for a reason. The students can come down; the teachers can come down. You can write us messages on the white board in the hallway. I think it adds to the community you see here.