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Gourmet for tighter belts

Liesel Flashenberg grew up poor in post-World War II Detroit, but she didn’t know it. Her mother taught her how to dress like a million bucks from month-end sales and eat like a queen on chicken necks. Bargain hunting came as naturally as breathing. Even after she married a well-paid corporate lawyer, she shopped at thrift stores anyway.

So it wasn’t a stretch when Flashenberg, an incurable child of the ‘60s, decided to start teaching down-and-out women how to live richer, healthier lives. “Gourmet cooking on a food-stamp budget” was her motto. Soon hundreds of women on the ropes were learning how to turn vegetables gleaned from a farmer’s market into pate, stretch tuna salad with white beans, and find a Cuisinart at the Salvation Army.

The food produced in the cooking school was so good, Flashenberg and her husband launched a nonprofit catering business to teach their graduates a job skill and fund the mission at the same time. They called it Through the Kitchen Door, a social entrepreneurship that has now helped women for five years.

Then something unexpected happened: The country plunged into a recession, and all of a sudden it wasn’t just poor people interested in gourmet food at food-stamp prices.

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Catering calls started coming in from upscale clients: a cocktail party at one of Washington’s most prestigious law firms, a bat mitzvah for a MacArthur genius, two fancy rooftop weddings, and a Super Bowl party hosted by the bon vivant mayor of Somerset, Md., known as much for his philanthropy and proudly gay lifestyle as for his fabulous soirees.

While professional caterers are projecting as much as a 10% to 30% drop in sales, business at Flashenberg’s small company -- which operates out of a church kitchen in a remote corner of the capital near Abe Lincoln’s summer cottage -- is booming. Sales tripled in the last year.

“It looks like very high-end stuff, but it’s grounded in bargains,” said Flashenberg, 63, standing one recent afternoon in the bustling kitchen near a stainless-steel refrigerator donated by a Chinese restaurant that went belly up. “People are cutting back, so they look for quality at a more reasonable price. With us they get a double bang for the buck -- good food and they are supporting community development.”

The recession put a crimp in the party circuit; whether because of shrunken portfolios or conspicuous-consumption guilt, extravagance is out, restraint is in.

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“The New York and Washington splurge parties are over,” said Joe Dunbar, a food service industry specialist who monitors trends in the catering business. “Before it was caviar on canapes and the big shrimp. Now it’s bacon-wrapped chicken livers.”

That is not to say thrift spells the death of elegance, as Flashenberg’s presence attests. Her hair is cut in a naturally silver bob. Her outfit -- a red wool French couture coat, black Ralph Lauren pants, a silk blouse and matching geometric glass earrings -- came from thrift stores and a rummage sale. Total cost: about $13.

The same frugal ingenuity is at work in her kitchen, where students are taught cooking basics in a 20-hour course that emphasizes flavor, health and bargains. Such as where to find good beef tenderloin for less than half the going rate (at a Korean supermarket). Or how to turn a 4-pound chicken purchased on sale for $8 into 12 meals. (Poach the whole chicken in a soup with spices, a little white wine and plenty of cheap, seasonal vegetables to serve four. Remove the chicken and use all but the breast with rice and more roasted vegetables for arroz con pollo that also serves four. Take the breast and add celery, radishes, cucumbers, mayo and curry powder for curried chicken salad that serves four more. Total cost: about $1 a meal.)

Balancing more expensive meats and seafood with cheap but healthful vegetables and making it all look chic on the hors d’oeuvre table is one of Kitchen Door’s strongest selling points: “You put a roasted pepper spread on a little cucumber slice and pile up marinated baby shrimp, which costs next to nothing, and people think they’re getting an expensive shrimp appetizer,” Flashenberg said.

The other selling point is a clear conscience. Much of the Kitchen Door’s revenue goes to pay the people the company exists to help -- mostly poor immigrants, although Flashenberg recently conducted a class at a battered women’s shelter and is starting after-school programs for at-risk teenagers.

On this afternoon, the kitchen at St. Paul’s Episcopal is buzzing. Trays of empanadas -- the house specialty, derived from her grandmother’s cream cheese and butter crust -- are in the oven. Pumpkin tiramisu filling for a conference of divorce lawyers sits in a big silver bowl. And in the freezer, there are coconut-spiked brownies that have moved some men to propose marriage.

It’s lunchtime, and plates of angel hair pasta with a fresh tomato sauce (about 50 cents per serving) begin to line up on the counter. This is part of the tradition: The women not only earn money working for the catering end -- $11 an hour, sometimes more -- they eat lunch together in the church reception hall. Their English is strained, their stories heroic.

There is Gladys Lopez, 62 and a widow; she abandoned her business as an aesthetician in Colombia five years ago when guerrillas threatened to kidnap her year-old grandson.

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Pilar Obando, 48, couldn’t find work in Ecuador. She worked herself into a permanent staff position and does much of the shopping.

Nancy Almeida-Hinojosa, 48, came from Ecuador because she couldn’t have a baby. Here, she had two. (It wasn’t fertility treatment, she says, but getting away from her in-laws that did it.) Now she dreams of owning a bakery.

It was women like these who drew Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin to Flashenberg three years ago when he decided to throw himself a 50th birthday bash. A successful real estate developer for whom money was no object, he authorized the most expensive menu the Kitchen Door staff had tackled to date: fresh figs with Gorgonzola and prosciutto, deviled quail eggs, bruschetta with smoky eggplant caviar. He felt good about the cause he was supporting.

“She’s really all about the mission and not about making a profit. She isn’t pushing the jumbo prawns,” Slavin said in the dining room of his stone cottage as guests mingled at his annual Super Bowl party. They were less interested in the game than in what was coming out of the kitchen: bowls of seafood paella (Obando shopped for the vegetables), empanadas stuffed with wild mushrooms (Almeida-Hinojosa made the crust) and mini crab cakes (Lopez served them).

“Croob, uh, crob, uh, crab cake?” Lopez stammered, working on her English as she offered guests a sample from a tray of perfectly golden morsels the size of a 50-cent piece.

It was her first event, but she looked like a pro. Her grandson was safe at her home in Maryland. And her tiny frame darted happily about the room, in black pants, white shirt and red apron marked with the company logo that pretty much told the story: a joyful stick figure, kitchen utensils in hand, dancing.

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faye.fiore@latimes.com

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