Here's a choice: Burn out or really start cooking

DEAR BALTIMORE drug dealers: Tired of your loser life? Tired of being used to spread the poison in your hometown? Tired of living with your mother because, despite what people think, you can't afford a place of your own? Tired of the prospect of going to jail again, or ending up with a bullet in your head?

Here's today's proposition: Learn how to cook. I know a master chef who is ready to train you to make tarragon-infused poached chicken breast with lemon-basil cream.

Serious.

You could become a master chef yourself, maybe even open your own restaurant, or have your own cable show, or end up cooking at a fabulous resort in the Caribbean. If you're in your 30s or 40s, it's not too late to get started. If you're a teenager or in your 20s, doing little more than selling dope on the corner, the time couldn't be better to get on a new track.

"For the 21-year-old who is motivated, there is absolutely no limit to how far he or she can go from here," says Kurt Clodfelter, the chef who will train you.

Let me tell you about this guy. Kurt learned to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America - the CIA - in New York. That's one of the top cooking schools in the world. He grew up in the Baltimore area, and he helped open and reopen a bunch of restaurants around here. He's been cooking since he was a kid. He could probably have an executive chef's job at any number of restaurants or hotels, if he wanted to do that.

But he likes to teach.

So six months ago, Kurt hooked up with Moveable Feast, which is the nonprofit program that prepares and delivers up to 600 meals a day to homebound people living with AIDS. The group works out of St. Benedict's parish hall, off Wilkens Avenue in Southwest Baltimore.

In addition to providing meals for the homebound, Moveable Feast runs 12-week programs to train men and women to cook as a career. The class doesn't cost a penny. In fact, you get a $50 weekly stipend for perfect attendance. Kurt Clodfelter is the teacher. His last class learned how to make Jamaican jerk rib roast with horseradish-coconut creme fraiche, hickory-smoked pork tenderloin, paella risotto and walnut-crusted yam cakes.

So, a CIA man to train you, $50 a week to show up - there might not be a better vocational training deal around.

All you have to do is come off the corner and give it a try.

"This is real culinary education. The students are not just being used for labor at Moveable Feast," says Vince Williams, operations director. "They get classroom and hands-on instruction, and instruction in life skills."

You have to be at least 18 years old to apply for the class.

"And," says Vince, "the student has to be referred to us by a caseworker, or a friend, family member or sponsor. There needs to be a sense of accountability."

He means you need to show up - or have a friend or relative who will see that you do.

You can't be partying all the time, or staying out all night on the corner. You probably have to get away from your dope-selling, dope-sniffing friends - your "homies" - maybe move to another place where you can get some sleep and focus on training.

Your criminal record doesn't matter to these guys.

"You can have felonies," says Vince. "You can have misdemeanors. We do background checks. When we decide to go with a student, we'll give him a chance - if they have support, a sponsor. We look for the highly motivated person."

"The one who says they've had enough [of street life and jail], they're done foolin' around and want a career," adds Kurt.

Since Moveable Feast started this program a couple of years ago, they've trained about 60 men and women. Graduates receive ServSafe food safety certification from the National Restaurant Association, and a certificate from Moveable Feast. "Our graduates are ready to be prep or line cooks when they come out of here," says Kurt. "But they can go on from there. They are always going to be able to find a job in the hospitality industry."

And that industry has been in a long boom period. A good cook or chef can find excellent jobs right in Baltimore.

But it involves hard work and long hours. Kurt will tell you all about that - and the kind of money you can expect to make - if you take his class. "And I can help them overcome questions [from prospective employers] about their past," he says.

The past.

It would be nice if drug dealing could be in your past. Here's a chance to put it there. Tomorrow is Independence Day. Declare yourselves free, brothers and sisters, and start a new life. You can contact Kurt Clodfelter or Vince Williams at 410-327- 3420. They want to get a new class of 16 students started in the next week or two.

Persons who are interested in hiring any of the ex-offenders profiled in recent columns can contact Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166, or by e-mail at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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