Light House culinary program offers second chance for homeless, unemployed

As with many things in life, the secret to clarifying butter is patience.

"You can't hurry love," chef Linda Vogler instructs her culinary students, gathered around as she helps a student skim the foamy, fatty spots from a saucepan of melted butter.

Then she breaks into song: "You can't hurry love. No, you just have to wait ..." and the students burst into giggles, a few singing along.

Vogler is the beloved culinary instructor at Light House, an Annapolis-based shelter and homeless prevention organization.

Her students are in the fifth week of a 14-week program designed to teach them the basics of classic cooking techniques — enough skills to hopefully find, and keep, jobs in the culinary industry.

The program, Building Employment Success Training — or BEST — has flourished in its two years of existence. In addition to the culinary track, BEST offers a maintenance and landscaping track. A data entry program is in the works, as is an expansion of the culinary program.

So far, 92 people have graduated from the BEST culinary program and 70 percent have found jobs within 90 days, according to Light House officials. BEST has a 100 percent passing rate on a key food sanitation exam.

Students are either shelter residents or others in the community who need job training to help with their employment prospects.

On this cold winter day, the BEST students are dressed in aprons and matching purple T-shirts. In the cozykitchen, they're working on making cream of broccoli soup from scratch that will be served to homeless clients the next day.

Vogler instructs her students in every detail, reminding them of French cooking terms along the way: mirepoix for the onion-celery-carrot mix, the bouquet garni bag of fresh herbs and spices, the bechamel sauce that will be the base for the soup.

Janel McGowan, 24, hopes her culinary training is a first step toward one day running her own business.

Homeless for six years, bouncing between hotels, McGowan has lived at Light House with her two children for about a year and a half. She lives on the family-centered third floor and cooks for the group every Sunday.

"I'm used to the kitchen," McGowan said. "I wanted to know what it's like to be a chef."

Light House hopes to expand the reach of the BEST program by converting the shelter's old building at 206 West St. into a 50-seat cafe on the ground floor and four apartments on the upper floor. The cafe is seen as a way to give BEST participants a feel for what it's like to work in a restaurant.

Light House officials have asked state lawmakers for $250,000 to help get the project off the ground. The organization is also hoping for grants from the City of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County, though the bulk of the $1.34 million project will come from private donations. Overall, Light House gets 91 percent of its funds from private donations and grants.

The state grant is one of several bond bills that have been discussed by Anne Arundel's delegates. Hearings on the Light House project before the House of Delegates and state Senate budgeting committees are scheduled for March 8.

The cafe would build on BEST's recent foray into the catering world. Light House now takes catering jobs and staffs them with BEST graduates who want to pick up part-time work.

Vogler said cooking can prove to be a "redemptive" career for people who have been homeless or unemployed, and who perhaps have made mistakes in their past.

"It's such a good second chance," she said.

Gregory Powell, 30, took the BEST culinary class when he was a resident at the Light House and has since returned as kitchen steward, maintaining the equipment, keeping the kitchen safe and helping Vogler keep things humming.

After graduating from BEST and leaving the shelter, Powell kept coming back to volunteer. Eventually, the Light House hired him.

Powell said he's worked in kitchens since he was a teenager and loves making barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce from scratch. One of his specialties is a pasta, beef and cheese casserole he invented.

"They say success doesn't happen overnight," he said. "I'm going to take it as far as I can."

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