Not long after Felicia Cuellar started working at The Village Kitchen, she began to suspect that the purple potatoes she'd been roasting had been dyed. The red carrots, too. Aren't carrots supposed to be orange?
Indeed, most everything she knew about food she'd learned from the drive-thru. She didn't know the proper way to hold a knife, much less how to distribute butter in batches of scone batter to keep them from spreading out like pancakes in the oven.
From her first day, however, Cuellar was an expert on the scale. She was so good, she barely needed one. Whatever the recipe called for -- 11 ounces of flour, 14 ounces of powdered sugar -- she'd squint one eye, size up her target, plop it on the scale and, more often than not, come pretty darn close. That's because back home in Lancaster, she'd used the same kind of scale for years. "To weigh dope," she said.
If you like your sandwich with a nice story on the side, think about stopping in at the new storefront cafe at 1667 Beverly Blvd., just northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
The cafe is the latest project of the Good Shepherd Center for Homeless Women and Children. Over the last 25 years, the organization has provided thousands with food, clothes, housing and counseling, all under the steady hand of Sister Julia Mary Farley, its founder and a saintly sort in local social work circles.
Good Shepherd occupies nearly an entire block in a stretch of town otherwise peppered with cheap motels, union halls and lavanderías. Its latest addition is a $13-million building with 21 transitional apartments -- and this tiny cafe.
The cafe is staffed by 10 women, nine of them mothers, all of them recently homeless, imprisoned or both. There are former addicts, dealers, thieves and old-fashioned down-on-their-luckers -- some of whom have eaten out of garbage cans -- being trained in classic cuisine and, on the best days, learning to love themselves again.
"This is the answer," said B.J. Daniels, 51, a single mother who grew up in Long Beach and had a stable life until a transportation company furloughed her job three years ago amid budget cuts.
Daniels stayed with relatives as long as she could, and then, out of options, landed at Good Shepherd. This summer, she signed up for a work program at The Village Kitchen, undergoing 80 hours of wage-free training. Now fully employed, she hopes to introduce some of her family recipes, including seafood gumbo, to the menu.
"This is an expression of our pride," she said. "People will see that we treat them with care. I think that will make it prosper."
The idea, said Pasquale Vericella, owner of Il Cielo restaurant in Beverly Hills and a longtime Good Shepherd board member, was to use the cafe as a teaching tool to give the women "a craft and a sense of belonging."
But even the best ideas come with red tape and permitting snarls, so the cafe has been nearly 10 years in the making. It didn't get any easier once Executive Chef Jaime Turrey, a former Bay Area chef, was hired last fall.
During much of the training and menu design, Turrey, 32, had only a shopping cart and a broom closet to store his equipment -- and many of his cooking tools, including muffin pans and his best knives, were taken from his own wedding registry. Many of the women, meanwhile, had no understanding of cuisine. What they did know about food -- making "prison tamales" with crushed tortilla chips wrapped in newspaper, for instance -- wasn't much help.
Everything is made from scratch -- a point of pride but also debate; Turrey spent an hour last week demonstrating that fresh mayonnaise is yellow-tinged, not bright white like at the grocery store. Math was another problem; hand-written equations ("11 1/4 oz X 2 = 22 1/2 oz") are scribbled all over the kitchen.
"I'm not training them for this job. I'm training them for their next job," Turrey said. "I don't want them to learn to pop something in the oven. I want them to be able to go to a nice restaurant and meet the expectations of that job from Day One. If the manager says, 'Blanche me some haricot vert' -- French green beans -- "they will know what that means. These women are ready for anything."
By now, Turrey is mentor, brother, counselor. On a recent morning, one chef needed to send a postcard to the father of her child; the father had recently been jailed. Turrey made four calls to locate free postcards. As soon as he hung up, another chef brought over a batch of dough and asked him to test the consistency. He gave it a pinch and approved.
The kitchen was humming. There were meatballs sizzling in a sauté pan, red and purple potatoes in roasting pans, and beets cooling in a huge bucket of ice. Chefs emerged from the walk-in freezer carrying cheese bread doughs and fresh tomato sauce, their breath still steaming from the cold.
"You would never know," Cuellar said as she patted roasted walnuts into the frosting of a carrot cake.
"What?" asked Kimberly Ferguson, 43, another chef.
"You know," Cuellar said without looking up. "That we're convicts and stuff."
Theirs is not a tale of unadulterated salvation. It would be too simple to suggest that working at the cafe has marked a clean break for everyone.
There are women here who merely fell victim to a sorry economy. But there are also women who ripped copper wiring out of strangers' houses and sold it to buy drugs -- not all that long ago, either. There are gambling addicts who, when they appear to be contentedly shearing stalks of cilantro, are quietly fending off urges to make a run for a casino. Some don't regret what they did, only that they got caught. Some aren't convinced they won't do it again.
Cuellar, 32, has a kind, easy smile and is a mother of three girls. She spends much of her time fretting because her oldest daughter just started dating boys.
It's easy to forget when she's showing off pictures of her kids that she had her first taste of methamphetamine when she was in the third grade; a relative stirred it into her milk, and they stayed up all night making beaded earrings together. By 12, she was snorting it; by 16 she was smoking it.
Cuellar began dealing to support her own drug use, then to make money -- gobs of it, which she spent as fast as it came in. She sold drugs to friends, to neighbors. She stopped paying cash at fast-food restaurants, just handed over a few crystals of meth instead. She sold to gangs, including white-power skinheads who presumably didn't think much of her Mexican-Native American heritage. "Just business," she said.
After she helped savagely beat a man who had robbed her -- mostly to make sure that no one would think she was "weak," she said -- she was convicted of assault and sent to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla for two years. She was recently released to a transitional treatment center in Los Angeles, where she was approached about becoming a Village Kitchen chef.
A life like hers, she pointed out, doesn't get cleansed by baking a batch of muffins. But there is a sense here of new beginnings. Cuellar used to dream of building a massive house -- with no kitchen. No need for one of those. Now she's broke -- the government seized her assets -- and she's pretty much OK with that. She's hoping to work at a hotel restaurant back in the Antelope Valley.
"I feel . . . I don't know . . . free or something," she said. "I never thought in a million years I would like this. But I do. It's cool. It's really cool."
She turned back to her carrot cake.
"This," she said, "is going to be beautiful."