Young cooks cater to their futures

Deli Delights offers students a menu for life, starting in the kitchen

October 31, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

The best thing David Williams could cook two years ago was toast.

He's since gotten some coaching and has become one of the top cooks at Deli Delights, a Woodlawn catering business. Williams, 20, is even thinking of making a career in culinary arts.

"I wasn't so good at first," Williams said. "But I know now that I can do anything I put my mind to."

Deli Delights is a catering business operated by students with mental disabilities and learning problems, under the supervision of professional chefs.

Five days a week the students, ages 14 to 21, serve up hot chicken wings, fish and chips, and a variety of sandwiches to local businesses. They serve about 150 meals a day.

While running the deli, the students take classes that teach them money management and other basic life skills. The program, run by the nonprofit Youth in Transition School, is aimed at giving disabled students a chance at viable careers. The school's $2.4 million budget is financed by the state of Maryland.

"These are students who will not do all that well in high school, but will have the opportunity to transition into the work force," said Larry Norris, executive director of education for the Youth in Transition School.

Yesterday, six of the students received black-and-white checkered caps. Like belts given in karate, the caps are a sign that the students have been promoted to work in the kitchen.

Williams and Calvin Simpson, 19, also received awards for being the top students in the program.

The students come from the school systems in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. Some have been in trouble with the law and others abandoned by their families.

Nearly 40 students have participated in the program since its inception two years ago.

While working for Deli Delights, the students learn skills such as how to maintain a clean restaurant, how to wash dishes and how to prep food.

"There's no time limits on these kids," said executive chef James Richardson, the head cook who works with the students at Deli Delight.

"We teach them until they're ready. We want them to be ready for the real working world. We want them to know that when a real boss tells them to do something, there are no second chances. You don't do it and you're sent home or fired," Richardson said.

The deli caters to companies such as the Larry Beck Co. and the National Center on Institutions & Alternatives.

The Maryland Classified Employees Association Inc. uses Deli Delight to cater staff luncheons and board of director and union meetings. The association, which represents state and university employees, uses Deli Delights for about 90 percent of its catering needs.

"It's convenient and it's tasty," said spokeswoman Janet Anderson. "But in addition to the value of the food, it's good to know we're supporting a worthy program that is helping to train these kids."

Graduates of the program have gotten jobs in restaurants and nursing homes, among other places.

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