“Cooking takes me to a happier time. It’s a point of safety.”
Debra McKenzie, age 53, fondly recalls time spent in the kitchen as a child. She is one of six homeless women in a shelter and transition program at Atlanta Mission who participated in cake classes at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. The series of classes, led by Chef Instructor, Gretchen George, taught the women to bake and decorate cakes. The culmination of the series was entry in the “down-home” category of the PattyCakes “Holiday Cake Affair” cake competition.
On the day before the competition, the women headed back to Le Cordon Bleu’s kitchens
to bake and decorate their final cakes before the competition. Working late into the evening, the ladies perfected their entries. Some came prepared with family recipes. Bessie English wanted to make her cousin Belle’s pound cake made with a secret ingredient: Sprite. Others, such as Lois Blackshear, wanted to try out new techniques — marbling — with her white and dark chocolate marbled cake. And Debra McKenzie, drawing from her own cookbooks — books that she had to get special permission to bring to the shelter — had a lemon-curd-coconut cake in the works.
While waiting for the cakes to bake, they considered how to store their entries in the shelter’s walk-in refrigerator (with DO NOT TOUCH signs) and when they would add the last-minute garnishes. The Atlanta Mission/My Sister’s House shelter director, Jill Mays, coached Ashley Neville to consider the questions she might be asked during the competition — how the cake was made and what ingredients it contained. It was a learning experience from start to finish.
While none of these six women “placed” in the competition, they each took away something from the experience. For some, it was an exposure to a possible vocation. For others, it was simply a point of light — a happy time — amidst their struggles. And for Debra McKenzie, it was the inspiration to begin anew. Debra plans to apply for a scholarship to attend Le Cordon Bleu. She hopes to open her own restaurant one day. I can’t wait to try it.
–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog
– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.