Serving Up Hope

Noted chef Galen Sampson offers help for troubled lives by teaching culinary skills

November 05, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

At the Dogwood Deli counter in Hampden, Jennifer Brock takes orders for breakfast burritos, whips up "Chai-huahua" smoothies, chats with customers.

In the kitchen, Tyrone Lewis chops 20 heads of cabbage for soup and slaw, while planning the day's specials and taking mental inventory of the bread supply.

Several years ago, neither Brock nor Lewis could have progressed beyond dead-end jobs in the restaurant business. Now, they practically run the bustling cafe. Both are former drug users who found recovery programs that in turn led them to Galen and Bridget Sampson, the deli's owners.

"Bridget and Galen are amazing. Amazing," says Brock, 35. They "not only gave me a good job, they treat you well and pay you well," she says. "I feel very valued here. I'm important. They depend on me to keep the front looking nice and they want a friendly atmosphere."

The Sampsons opened the Dogwood Deli three months ago. Already it has the comfortable feel of a neighborhood haunt where merchants and construction workers come for morning coffee and then again at lunchtime for a sandwich, or soup and salad.

With the deli, which will ultimately include Asta, an upscale, 120-seat dining room, Galen Sampson has realized his dream of operating his own restaurant.

For now, the deli's grilled chicken-portobello sandwiches and whimsically named smoothies are a far cry from the Hudson Valley foie gras in Riesling aspic with warm brioche and cloudberries Sampson had served at Hampton's, Harbor Court Hotel's five-star restaurant.

But the shift from haute to folksy is no indication that Sampson has left behind the joys and stresses of an ambitious kitchen. Since returning in 1997 to his hometown after a series of apprenticeships at elite resort restaurants from Utah to Bermuda and training at the Culinary Institute of America, Sampson advanced at Harbor Court to become its executive chef. He was a culinary luminary - with nothing more to learn.

It was time to switch roles.

Now, it is Sampson's turn to train new culinarians - while affording former drug users and convicts a fresh start in life. With his love of the food industry, a bit of "Smalltimore" good luck that brought Bridget into his life, and a commitment to social justice, Sampson is creating a sorely needed avenue for men and women transitioning back to society.

"I've always wanted to give back," says Sampson, a man with sandy red hair and a stolid presence. "I've been searching for a way to apply myself and my skills to make the most difference."

A $48,750 grant from the Baltimore Community Fellowship Program, an initiative run by the Open Society Institute, gives Sampson, 41, the necessary support to launch Chefs in the Making. Just as Sampson sliced, diced and demi-glaced his way to chefdom, his class, including Brock and Lewis, will master skills much in demand in the burgeoning food industry. Those who complete both stages of the free, two-tiered program will qualify for certification testing by the American Culinary Federation.

Apprentices in Sampson's program won't have to duck flying ladles, as he once did when a temperamental chef lost patience with him on the first day on the job. He has an unflappable way of holding chaos at bay while juggling construction of a new restaurant, overseeing the cafe and designing the apprenticeship program.

Noting his "tendency to be very serious and hyper-focused," Sampson says friends often urge him to lighten up. The intensity he brought to preparing gourmet feasts is fueling his work with Baltimoreans who want to repair their lives. "A lot of this has to do with my belief, my faith," Sampson says. "You need to make a difference in your community."

At Harbor Court, Sampson instituted an in-house training program that allowed staff to forge a way out of a lifetime of menial jobs. One former dishwasher is now a sous chef at Morton's steakhouse on South Charles Street, Sampson says.

But he also heard horror stories from employees about relatives mired in drug addiction and the criminal justice system. "I got to know the staff and all the struggles you read about in the paper and think happen to somebody else," Sampson says.

Many of those who tried to extricate themselves were "having a hard time getting people to take a chance on them," he says. Often, they "got stuck going back to the way things were before."

Forming a team

While contemplating his next professional step, Sampson met his future wife. It was his 39th birthday, and he and a colleague had stopped at Morton's for a drink. Bridget Muller, elegant, articulate, gregarious, was bartending.

Used to customers and their typical bar chatter, she remembers thinking, "`This one's really different. Where the heck did he come from?'" The two had "met cute" after working across the street from each other for eight years.

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