D.C.'s star chefs prepare fresh meals for youths in juvenile detention

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When the boys and girls residing at the juvenile detention center on Mount Olivet Road in Northeast Washington were asked to pick the menu for a special holiday meal, they opted for no frills: Fried chicken. Macaroni and cheese. Potatoes. And cake. Lots of cake.

So it was that Monday night some of the city's best-known restaurateurs found themselves in a jail kitchen whipping up a feast of classic comfort food. Nora Pouillon and chef Benjamin Lambert of Restaurant Nora mashed the sweet potatoes with North African spices and consulted with chef Horatio Davis of Ben's Next Door on the chicken marinade. Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets helped Warren Brown of CakeLove spread sliced strawberries and Italian buttercream meringue, flavored with pure vanilla extract from Madagascar, over sour-cream vanilla poundcake for the strawberry shortcake. Constantine Stavropoulos of Tryst and the Diner mixed vast tubs of his secret three-cheese and bechamel sauce mac-and-cheese. (It's all in the gruyere, is all he would divulge.)

The chefs were perhaps overqualified for the job. Usually they're busy impressing food critics and competing for bragging rights in foodie circles.

Still, they faced a tough audience.

"Throw some more sugar in these yams and they'd be all right," one teenage diner said of Pouillon's sweet potatoes.

Pouillon, a goddess of the organic cooking movement, is more used to hearing such phrases as "You're an icon," which is what Shallal told her back in the kitchen.

But the kids ate most of it up -- especially the shortcake -- and seemed appreciative.

"This is a wonderful thing," said a 17-year-old boy from Columbia Heights who would be spending his first Christmas away from his family. "It makes you forget you're in prison for a while."

Never before had the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services approached the local restaurant community for such a favor. And rarely before had so many chefs and restaurant owners checked their egos at the kitchen door and peeled carrots together for such a cause. Eleven establishments were represented. About 100 young people were served.

Nutrition first

It was part of a citywide initiative to improve nutrition in institutional settings. Detention officials hoped the meal would demonstrate that reasonably healthful food made from scratch can taste good. They also wanted to lighten the mood for the young people at this time of year.

"They're always stressed out during the holiday, wanting to go home and be with their families," said Zakiya Razzak, a social worker at the Youth Services Center, as the facility is formally known. "That's something we struggle with this time of year."

The center is a temporary holding facility for boys and girls typically 14 to 17 years old, but they may be as young as 11. Some have been charged with crimes from stealing cars to assault to armed robbery, and are awaiting action in their cases. Others have been convicted and are awaiting sentencing.

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