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Life's Kitchen cooks up new opportunities

"Fire one jerk chicken, one salad, one croque monsieur," calls Chef Greg McDonald, and three cooks at three different work stations immediately get to work. Danny places a scoop of rice on a dinner plate while Chef Greg heats a handful of raisins in a fragrant cider sauce, then pulls a succulent whole pork tenderloin from the oven. He cuts a few thick slices off the roast and places them in the pan with the simmering raisins. Danny tops his rice with half of a huge chicken breast and brings it to the chef for inspection. The chef approves, then turns his attention to plating the pork slices with chunks of sweet potato and garnishing them with a small ball of maple butter.

A waiter arrives with a new order, then whisks the plates out to the dining room. Danny tries to help by calling the order out to his co-workers, but Chef Greg firmly instructs the young man not to stray from his station. Chef Greg calls out the order as Danny returns to his station and follows the chef's instructions. When the next set of plates are presented to Chef Greg, he takes one of the plates to the salad station and re-plates a skimpy-looking collection of leaves prepared by Jeremiah. Chef Greg gently admonishes his student by asking, "If you read the menu, it says what kind of salad?" Jeremiah reads briefly before replying, "Big." He absorbs his chef's instructions willingly and nods before carrying out his next task. They are beginning to work in unison now, the chef relying on his students and vice versa, and a bond of trust is forming between them all.

click to enlarge CYNTHIA NEFF

And so it begins in the first two weeks at Life's Kitchen, a program that is totally unique in the United States, where kids aged 16 to 20 who have fallen through the cracks of society find comfort, purpose and help from caring adults—a couple of whom have dwelled in the dangerous potholes on the road of life themselves.

"I was the black sheep in my family," states Chef Greg, who can relate to where many of these kids are coming from. "I tell them, 'We can deal with whatever you are going through. What's in the past is past. Let's deal with it and figure out how to prevent it from happening again.'" Chef Greg, who is director of education, and the six other staff members are committed to teaching their pupils how to live productively rather than aimlessly or destructively, as well as how to cook with flair.

The students prepare and serve lunch for the Life's Kitchen Cafe every Wednesday through Friday (open 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and are taught professional culinary basics like knife skills, how to prep ingredients, set up and tear down every station, and how to make a mother sauce like bechamel. Basic kitchen courtesy is emphasized daily and it seeps into the lives of these kids who often arrive at the program willingly, yet often ill-mannered and carrying a load of bad habits to unlearn.

"We pretend we don't know how street-wise these kids really are," says Executive Director Sunny Spence, explaining that the focus at Life's Kitchen is to help set young people on the right path. Many come from impoverished or badly broken homes, or are trying to get out from under a drug problem, or have reached the age of 18 and been ejected from the foster care system. All need skills immediately.

click to enlarge CYNTHIA NEFF

Board of Directors President Jeannie Kranz explains, "There is no time for them to get to know themselves like 'normal' kids who graduate from high school and go to college. They need a job and they need it now. We teach them social skills, teach them to look people in the eye," and give them job interview practice sessions and instruction on how to shake someone's hand.

Volunteers and donations play an important role at Life's Kitchen. Every month a wine dinner is held in the colorful cafe and everything from the delicious food to the delectable wines to the chef's and his staff's time is donated so the program receives 100 percent of the profit. In February, Simplot Executive Chefs Mark Hill and Dianna Fricke-Stallsmith wowed diners with a five-course dinner that included a sweet and spicy prawn with peanut sauce appetizer, roast duck salad and key lime parfait for dessert. Wines from Chile, Sonoma Valley and Idaho were donated by Hayden Beverage and poured by their fine wine specialist, Christian LaMotte. It was upscale food in a lighthearted atmosphere.

Best of all, diners were introduced to Danny Morales, a current student who came to Idaho from San Diego, where he had been getting himself into trouble. His family sent him here to live with his uncle and get his life turned around. Morales catches a bus in Caldwell at 5:30 each morning in order to arrive at Life's Kitchen in Boise by 8 a.m. He impresses Chef Greg because he works hard, arrives early and stays late. The 18-year-old enjoys cooking, as well as boxing, and earned money for a speed bag by working for his uncle's contracting business. At the most recent wine dinner on Thursday, March 16, Chef Mitchell Marichich of The MilkyWay served as the event's guest chef. On Wednesday, April 19, Life's Kitchen's own Executive Chef Rouchelle Abrahamson takes the culinary helm. "I want to get the food industry involved with us," explains Abrahamson, who also serves as culinary director. "I want to be a go-to," she says, explaining how she'd like Life's Kitchen to be the first place local chefs look when they need a new line cook or prep cook.

"In 10 minutes we'll want to get our lines set to close, please. Ten minutes," calls out Chef Greg as the lunch shift winds down. "Yes, chef," the students reply in unison. As they clean up their stations, return cleaned dishes to their proper places and prepare equipment for the following day, students are one day closer to getting their own lives in order and preparing for a hope-filled tomorrow.

Life's Kitchen is located at 1025 S. Capitol Blvd. in Boise. To sign up for wine dinners call 331-0199. Check out the weekly lunch menu at www.lifeskitchen.org.

Questions? Comments? E-mail food@boiseweekly.com.

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