All the best ingredients in the world won’t fix school food if there aren’t skilled and committed cooks in the kitchen. At Washington Jesuit Academy, I learned that D.C. Central Kitchen’s social activism has left a definite imprint on personnel. Duane Drake and two of the assistant cooks I met there last week are all ex-offenders who completed a 13-week culinary training course at D.C. Central after their release from prison.

Drake, for instance, spent his last seven-year hitch in the joint on a charge of “assault with intent to maim” after he used the “boot” off a car steering wheel to attack a marine who’d been “messing” with his girlfriend. Eraleigh Green, who was tossing hard-boiled eggs with green onions and pickle relish for egg salad sandwiches when I met him, spent five years in prison for heroin distribution. And Derek Nelson, who usually arrives later in the day, scrubs pots and manages the dinner services, is a former drug addict convicted of selling crack cocaine.

The fourth member of the crew who was out sick, Makeisha Day, enrolled in the D.C. Central training program after she lost her job and was evicted from her apartment.

Commanding the kitchen–devising menus, ordering ingredients–is Drake, who manages meal service with a constant wariness and fretting over details. “I guess you’d call me a worry-wart,” says Drake. Eraleigh Green, who works under Drake, but still acts as a kind of mentor to the younger chef, has a different take on his boss: “He’s a workaholic.”

Or perhaps Drake is still trying to measure up to his father, a career military officer–first Army, then Marines. “I was a ‘B’ student,” says Drake, “but my dad wanted me to get straight ‘A’s.” His father also frowned on Drake’s eating habits.

After his parents split, Drake divided time between his mother on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and his father and step-mother here in D.C. Drake always hated vegetables–still does–and managed to get fat on his mother’s cooking. “I was an obese kid,” he says. His stepmother, meanwhile, could never cook, he says. “She served us chicken that was still red inside.” So he and his brother would smuggle McDonald’s meals into their bedroom in the basement and stash it behind the ceiling tiles. “We’d live for days off that, as long as we didn’t get caught.”

Drake worked odd jobs in restaurants from an early age and learned cooking and especially baking in prison. During his last prison term, he landed a plum assignment as head baker and a frequent banquet chef. He worked overtime to shorten his sentence. He also earned an associate degree in business, he said. But when he moved to Washington, McDonald’s wouldn’t hire him. “They said I was overqualified.” That’s when he enrolled at D.C. Central Kitchen.

Drake still can’t seem to work enough hours. Sometimes he leaves his apartment before dawn, before the buses start running, and walks three and half miles to work. “I’m so tired when I get home at night, I don’t even watch TV.” Last September, Drake collapsed in his office from exhaustion and anxiety and was rushed to nearby Providence Hospital. But the next morning, after being dosed with morphine, he crawled out of his hospital bed and snuck back to work, still wearing his hospital gown and with a trash bag wrapped around the catheter in his arm. He was determined to continue working–until police showed up at school to take him back to the hospital.

“I don’t ever want to be without a job again,” Drake explained. “I don’t want to be homeless, or on the streets.”