South’s Dawn Martin Gives ‘100%’ to Culinary Program and Staff


Rathna Malapati

Dawn Martin shows off the strawberry scones her class made from scratch. Martin has been working at South for 22 years.

Rathna Malapati, Assistant Clubs Editor

Everyday, from sunup to sundown, an instructor works tirelessly to enhance and refine the South Forsyth High School Culinary Department, known throughout Forsyth County for its exceptional food.

Typically arriving between 5:30 and 6 a.m., Dawn Martin stays at school until 4 p.m. in the afternoon, sometimes even later for the betterment of the SFHS Culinary Program and all students and staff.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we interviewed Martin about her accomplishments, her work ethic, and the importance of trying your hardest at everything you do.

What does the average day look like for you, from sunup to sundown?

There is never an average day, and that’s why I like food service because it is something ‘cray cray’ every day. I usually get here at about 6:45 a.m. 

If I have to go to the [grocery] store, I’ll be there by 6:15 in the morning, and then depending on what we have going on, sometimes I leave here at 4 p.m. Sometimes I go to the grocery store and then still have to go back again—it kind of depends on if [students] mess up a product. 

I’m not just always teaching, we also do labs and catering. So it’s a little different, every day.

How long have you been working here?

This is my 22nd year.

Have you always worked in this profession, and what made you pick it?

No, I absolutely did not pick it, it picked me. I went to school to be a registered dietician. I worked in the hospital setting for a while after. While my husband was working on his doctorate, I would be in the hospital. Once I talked to my boss, and she said, ‘You know what, you’d be really good at food service,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to do food service.’

However, later on, I went into diabetes education, and we started a diabetes camp for kids. It was nice to be able to use what I knew in food service to put that in place. 

[Forsyth County] is home for me, and we had a chance to come back home and this job opened up and they were getting ready to start the first program [in the county], which I got to do. No one had ever done a culinary arts program, so I got to help them with the setup and how they organized it and all the equipment and everything. It was the first one, but we also had [the help of] Brian Tam, who owns Tam’s backstage. He was working somewhere different and got some help from the industry people. And I’ve been here 22 years, so I guess I like it. You have to have a crazy need to work in food service!

What’s your favorite part of this job? 

The variety of things I get to do. That’s one thing. Then nothing is cooler than seeing a student go through something. I love that, and seeing the light bulb go on for them. As a dietitian, it’s also fun to see them go ‘Look, oh my gosh, that is so much better,’ and ‘I know we could do this instead’ when experimenting with the ingredients.

The other thing is I know we don’t look real diversified [in Forsyth], but we speak over 120 languages here in this county. I checked that with the statistics at the county level. And now that we’re getting [students from] different ethnic groups, we get to try more foods, and I selfishly get to say ‘Well, what do you do at home? What’s the legit way you cook this?’ I need a recipe brain because when you go out to eat, sometimes you get an Americanized version instead of getting legit [authentic food]. So selfishly, I like that part of it because I get to know a lot of people, and I can ask them ‘What is that tradition? Well, why don’t you do that?’ In food, you get to know the culture, you get to know the people and to me, getting to know the whole person is probably the coolest thing where you don’t get to do that in other classes.

What is something you do that you think many students don’t realize?

Maybe just the things that I do in my spare time at home. My hobbies are hiking and photography. I enjoy cooking. I cook a lot differently at home; I cook healthier meals at home. I have to teach [students] the whole gamut here, but that’s not always what I do. And just like last week, there were some needs in the community, and I found myself on Sunday afternoon cooking complete meals because there were people that really needed it for different reasons. Being legit from the south, that’s what we do. We just cook for people we love and we serve food. That’s just part of my culture. And this is how we just say, ‘We’re thinking about you’ or ‘We love you’ or ‘Come on, this will make everything better.’

What’s one of your funniest memories that you have from working here?

Okay, so this legit happened. We were catering at a concert in the quarry in Johns Creek. It was about 12 o’clock, really, really late one night. There were some parents waiting outside for their kids. They saw this little animal shoot through the door, and it went and hid behind the trophy case. One of the parents said, ‘You’ve got to come in, you’ve got to call 911.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that, I’ll get in trouble for calling 911.’ The more we thought about it, the more we thought, ‘What if the students come back?’ It looked like a possum but we couldn’t tell. So, all the kids left, and I’m here with this thing by myself. We finally decided to call 911. So the police show up, and they don’t know what to do with it. We tried to call animal control, [and] they didn’t know what to do with it. And it’s about three o’clock in the morning. So I’m feeding all the police that are in here because I’m not staying here by myself! 

Finally, we got someone that was going to come out, and I had to wait till they came. It was about four o’clock in the morning when I got home! I emailed the person Monday morning, and I asked if it was possible to put it on the menu, as a joke of course. They told me it was called a Nutria and it had a possum tail. Two or three years later, he said, ‘You know, it’s a good thing that you called me for that. And you just didn’t let it go.’ I said ‘Why?’ He said because they took it to Buford Dam and let it go. And when they did, it was mad, and it turned around and chased him. So can you imagine if we hadn’t gotten it and all you students came back? What would have happened?

What is your proudest memory working at South?

I have proud moments about every day with my students and what they’re able to achieve. Then we have some special events that also go on, like they go to see the Culinary Institute of America and other places, and then to just watch them come out. And just when they come to the school and give back. The general manager at Mellow Mushroom went through this program, and he comes over and slings pizza for us. When we had the Night to SHINE program, he came and volunteered pizzas for that.

So there’s so many proud moments, it’s hard to think of one big one. But we do have somebody this year who is in the middle of a competition, and we’re excited to see what’s going to happen. We won’t know till next week, so y’all will have to try it on the menu. We had a contest, and we had to use all the guidelines to try to come up with a creative meal. So we’ve come up with a Mexican bowl, and we’re using brown rice and all those kinds of things. We’re showcasing that next Thursday, and two chefs from the state nutrition program are coming to watch and see what we’ve done. They’ve already watched us compete. So maybe they’ll have good results for us, I don’t know. So that’s just another proud moment. That’s what I’m saying this is. And we’re going to the state tournament this week. 

What motivates you and who’s your inspiration?

The students motivate me. I love coming here every day and seeing you guys; I just can’t imagine not doing that. I have a lot of different mentors too and I just feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be.

How have you handled challenges?

I don’t want anything to beat me. So just keep working on it until I get it right. I don’t want to quit. I’m not a quitter. It’s important to make sure that you acknowledge you’ve made mistakes, but did Thomas Edison get it right the first 50 times? No! He kept doing it until he got it right. So you just keep going on. 

Do you have any words of encouragement for women going into the culinary field?

It’s like the Nike commercial says, you ‘Just do it’. If they say you can’t, show them you can. I think that it’s opened up a lot for women in culinary in the last 15 years. It’s changed a lot so they don’t have as many ethical battles to face. You know, like with anybody with anything, there’s always going to be [difficult] times, but it would be my mantra for anything, give 100% every day. And even if somebody doesn’t like you, they have to at least notice what you’re doing might and what your work ethic is. I think that’s something that we can all work out.

I’ve asked my students, ‘How many of y’all have given 100% in every one of your classes, for the last two days?’ Nobody raised their hand! So just starting there, for anybody, just giving 100%. The other thing is a little saying, it says, ‘Do what you love, love what you do.’ And if you do, it’s not work, is it? It’s just play all the time. 

Do you have anything else to add?

The other thing is, I don’t say this often but I really do appreciate our administrative staff. They allow me to be a professional and make decisions and go with it. One year, we used to serve breakfast made by students and staff to people that got here early enough. So now like this year, we’re trying something new and we’re doing the lunches for the staff one day a week. Last year, everyone loved the cart and I had so many interns want to join because of that. It’s hard because some people wanted to come just to do the marketing for us and I didn’t learn about this till two weeks before school started. So that’s something we’re always having to do is recreate ourselves. So it’s really good for the students to be able to think on their feet like that too, and figure out what’s happening and what you’re going to do. But I’m so proud of them for giving their 100% in everything.