Pancho doesn't like to talk about the past.
Ask him about his teen-age years in South Central Los Angeles and he gets momentarily silent. "There was a lot of violence. Lots of violence," he finally says. "It wasn't no friendly neighborhood where you would want to stop and ask anybody for directions, you know."
Ask about the Bloods -- the tough street gang he belonged to during those years -- and he shifts uncomfortably before answering, "It was just the thing for a teen-ager to do.
"It wasn't a thing where they pressed you," Pancho says. "You wanted to do it. For young kids, it seemed like it had a lot to offer. For most of them, there's problems at home and they feel as though they have to fend for themselves. With the help of gangs, that's how you do it.
"All they see is the money, the cars," he continues. "But they don't see the other side, the judge, the jail time. They don't see that side until they're actually in it."
Push him further, about the scrapes that kept him in and out of trouble with the law since he was 13, and his face clouds. He turns away and says with soft determination, "Yes, I was involved in that, but I care not to speak on it. I don't really want to talk about that too much. It's behind me. I'm trying to lead up that new straight path, you know. The will of God brought me out of that."
The new straight path that Pancho talks of led him to the Hollywood Diner last year -- after his probation officer in California sent him back to Baltimore to live with his mother and the Department of Juvenile Services here placed him at the diner.
And now, one year after he left the program, Hollywood Diner manager Bill Staffa calls Pancho -- who asked that his full name not be used -- the program's biggest success story.
He is now studying for his associate of arts degree in professional cooking at Baltimore International Culinary College during the day and working nights as a cook in the kitchen at Stouffer Harborplace Hotel.
"He represents what we want to do," Mr. Staffa says.
Pancho, now 19, was the first person from the diner to be placed at the hotel. He started out as a steward -- setting up equipment for banquets -- but soon asked to be transferred to the kitchen. He started washing pots on his own time to be with the kitchen staff.
In talking with them, he learned about the culinary college. He applied and was accepted there last fall. Also on his own, he arranged for the loans to finance his schooling, which costs nearly $18,000 over two years.
His days often start at 6 a.m. and end after midnight.
"Then I've got to do my little bit of studying or writing, then try to get some sleep before I have to get up the next morning," Pancho says, "I just take it day by day. It's a little easier that way."
Two months ago, Pancho was promoted to a job in the hotel's banquet kitchen, where he frequently works alongside Executive Chef Guy Reinbold. His goal is to become an executive chef within the next 10 years.
"I'm very proud of him," Mr. Staffa says. "He's done quite a bit in a short amount of time, and he's done it with independence and a lot of confidence."