Chef treats residents to culinary delights

by Nicole Rosselot

Growing up in an Italian family, Chef Dina Lawton’s favorite memories center around the kitchen and the delicious home-cooked meals shared with family and friends.

Lawton, the food services operation manager for Brecksville Human Services, fondly recalls helping her mother prepare feasts to celebrate special occasions and family gatherings, and says that it is these memories that inspired her culinary journey. 

“Cooking and baking have always been a natural instinct for me,” Lawton said. “My grandfather owned a restaurant before I was born, and I guess you could say it’s one of those things that is ingrained in me. I’ve always been in the kitchen and I love to cook, it’s just always been there.”

Lawton studied culinary arts at the Tri-C Hospitality Management Center and worked at Miss Hickory’s Tea Room in Strongsville before moving into her current role with the city of Brecksville. 

“I learned a lot [at Miss Hickory’s Tea Room},” she explained. “I was the chef there and I also ran the kitchen, so that was a great opportunity for me in regard to honing my craft and my trade. I also had the great opportunity to appear on New Day Cleveland.”

Lawton made the move to Brecksville Human Services two years ago, after the former manager retired. As the community chef, Lawton prepares meals for events at the human services center, the community center and for special events organized by the mayor’s office. She also oversees the aquatics concessions. “We just got done with the father/daughter dance, and then we had the Empty Bowls fundraiser [in March] and I’m providing a fish fry for human services in April,” Lawton said.  “We’re also doing an Easter Bunny event for the community center and the Mother’s Day tea, so there’s a lot going on.”

Helping Lawton prepare for all these events is a group of nine volunteers, including Lenore Hutchinson, who works with Lawton every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

“Because everything is made from scratch, you can tell in Dina’s meals the love that goes into her cooking,” Hutchinson said. “All of her pastries are made from scratch. … She’s very creative and she always goes the extra yard, she never skimps on anything.”

Chef Lawton is probably most familiar to residents who regularly attend Tuesday Brunch and the Grab and Go Lunch on Thursdays at the human services center. The Tuesday Brunch has grown in popularity, serving 65 to 70 meals each week and the wildly popular Grab and Go Lunch, for senior residents only, serves 175 to 185 meals each week.

Linda Lewis, who has volunteered with the human services department for 16 years, noted that the Tuesday Brunch and Thursday lunch programs are an important part of the Brecksville community.

“Dina always has something different every week. … She is always coming up with something new,” Lewis said. “The desserts are always fabulous and she is very creative and I think that’s one of the reasons so many people keep coming back.”

According to Lawton, she creates menus two months in advance, looking to cookbooks, Pinterest and her personal recipe collection for inspiration.

“I am always experimenting with something new,” Lawton said. “I receive really good feedback from the residents and it’s great to know that they look forward to every Thursday.”

For Lawton, the most fulfilling aspect of her job is the ability to bring people together through food. All of the events she manages provide “an opportunity for people to come together locally and be social and support the community,” Lawton said.

“We try to think about what the residents want, what they would like to see, so we can bring more people in and have more of a positive impact.” ∞