Thierry Musel is bent over the immense stove, brooding into the depths of a great pot of chicken broth. With his white coat, sharp features and dark, piercing eyes, he is the very picture of a French chef.

He has the intense nature of many chefs, too, teases his boss, Gretta Jones.

"It's the heat,'' he responds, with a funny, introspective smile.

It's that wise, ironic smile that seems to convey that he knows as much about human frailty as he does about good food.

Seven days a week, Musel's world consists of both those elements, intermingled.

A former restaurant chef in France, he is the full-time cook at Shepherd's Table, a Silver Spring soup kitchen. Here on a back street a few blocks from where Silver Spring's new skyline is rising, burnished and proud, meals are served every night of the year.

Musel, 46, found this place six years ago when he was homeless, living at a shelter and beginning to get sober. "I'm a cook," he said when he arrived.

The folks here told him, "We could use some help in the kitchen." Ron Allston, the cook back then, was a formidable presence. But he was fighting cancer. Musel found ways to assist Allston without usurping the weakened man's beloved kitchen.

When Allston grew too sick to work, Musel stepped into his job. Allston died in June.

Each afternoon, beyond the kitchen doors, the dinner crowd starts to gather: women with bags, men who talk to themselves, wind-burned day laborers.

Sometimes, 200 people show up for dinner. Musel still can see himself in many of these folks. He knows many are still locked in the grip of addiction, committing suicide by degrees. "Old friends who didn't make it," he calls them.

"There are also mental problems," he says. "I'm one of the few who got out."

Working here is no dream job, he says. Yet he can say this: "It's a constant reminder to stay sober."

He enjoys the challenge of coming in each day, seeing what has been donated by restaurants and grocers and finding ways to use it. If he gets leftover mashed potatoes from KFC, he makes shepherd's pie. If he has chicken, he makes chicken and rice, a favorite here. Fresh beans go into the steamer.

Musel used to worry a little that by feeding people here, he was enabling them, helping them to continue their habits and homelessness. But that worry passed.

"These people have so much more than addiction. They are in such distress," he says. He knows that for many of them, food is only an afterthought. He was like that, too, in the bad old days.

"I didn't mind staying three or four days without eating anything,' he says. Then -- by some miracle, he guesses -- his life changed.

Now, every day in the kitchen he is grateful.

"I got so lucky," he says. "It's hard work, but I'm the luckiest guy on Earth."

It is a raw night in spring. Out in the dining room, the round tables are filled with hungry men and women.

"Thank you, God, for giving us a place like this to get ourselves together," says a man named Alvin, who has a scar on his face and a mangled right hand.

At one table are two small children. The curly-haired boy is eating a muffin. They don't live in Montgomery County, but their mother, Shannon Young, says she brings them on the train when she is out of money. "I have to make sure my kids eat," she says.

"The food is good," says a young man who has finished his blue plate of stewed lamb, mashed potatoes, corn and beans.

"There was a very good, fresh salad," he adds softly. The man, whose initials are "E.A.," says he has lost everything. This place, he says, is "a blessing."