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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

A Washington, D.C., charity got its start 20 years ago this week by collecting leftover food from the inaugural balls of George H.W. Bush and feeding the homeless. Now, D.C. Central Kitchen's culinary students, many of whom have been homeless themselves or in prison, are cooking for this inaugural. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Jerome Girardot is the pastry chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington. He's greeting a half-dozen students from D.C. Central Kitchen, here to bake Michelle Obama's favorite shortbread cookies.

Mr. JEROME GIRARDOT (Pastry Chef, Ritz-Carlton Hotel): Are you guys ready? There's a lot to do.

FESSLER: Girardot takes the students, all wearing black chef jackets and caps, into the hotel's walk-in refrigerator, where large, metal trays hold slabs of dough.

Mr. GIRARDOT: So, we started already making it. So, one of you is going to roll it out. One of you is going to egg-wash it, put the dried fruit and nuts on top, bake it. Two of you are going to carry it. We have to make about 8,000. So, that's a lot of cookies.

FESSLER: Yes, that is a lot of cookies. Jars of them will be handed out as gifts to the hotel's inaugural guests.

Ms. MAKEISHA DAYE (Student, D.C. Central Kitchen): I'm rolling out the dough for the cookies.

FESSLER: Makeisha Daye bends over the conveyor belt of a large, metal machine used to flatten the dough into sheets. She lost her job and faced eviction from her home before entering the D.C. Central Kitchen's culinary program. And she's thrilled to play even a minor role in the inauguration of the nation's first black president.

Ms. DAYE: This is his wife's recipe, so it's an honor and a privilege, actually. I can share with my 4-year-old that I'm a part of history.

Mr. CURTIS CUNNINGHAM (Student, D.C. Central Kitchen): We're on our way.

Ms. DAYE: We're on our way.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Mine stay perfect, don't they? Every time.

FESSLER: Student Curtis Cunningham flips a sheet of dough onto a tray, then takes a paintbrush to cover it with egg so the toppings will stick.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I'm sprinkling the orange and lemon first, and then I'm placing the pistachios.

FESSLER: He presses the toppings down before the sheets go in the oven. Cunningham and the others from D.C. Central Kitchen are almost finished their 12-week culinary course, and are helping with several inaugural events. They've also begun to look for jobs. The group has placed about 98 percent of its graduates, more than 700 over the years. And like Cunningham, many are ex-offenders. He got out of prison last year after 15 years for attempted robbery and a long criminal record.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: I had 33 arrests and 13 convictions. You look surprised.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: Thirty-three is a lot.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, it is, you know. So - but I have totally changed from what I used to be. When I first came into the program, I had this attitude like the world owed me something. They turned me around. They talked to me, they worked with me, you know, my people skills.

FESSLER: And his cooking skills, too. He can't wait to start making meals. Robert Egger, who founded D.C. Central Kitchen, says a lot has changed since that first inauguration, when he shuttled bowls of lobster bisque to homeless shelters. And the culinary excesses of the time kept his operation alive.

Mr. ROBERT EGGER (Founder, D.C. Central Kitchen): For the first five years of the kitchen, I was up almost every night at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, because caterers were calling. It was roast beef and shrimp, and keep it coming, all over the city.

FESSLER: He says these days, there are few leftovers. Caterers have gotten smarter and more efficient. That's why nonprofits have to be smart, too, about how they help people, which is one reason for the culinary arts program and the opportunities it provides.

Mr. EGGER: First, it was give us your food. Then it was, hey, can we get students involved in preparing meals for the inauguration? Our goal now is, we want students to go to the White House and prepare a meal for a state dinner.

FESSLER: And he's optimistic that might happen. One of the program's graduates now cooks at Blair House, where the Obamas are staying tonight. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: And Pam mentioned Michelle Obama's shortbread cookies. We have that recipe at our Web site, npr.org.

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