In the kitchen of a residential unit at Optimist Youth Home in Highland Park, 18-year-old Lamont Harper tastes his honey and lemon salad dressing and determines it needs more acid. He then turns to check on the chicken he has baking in the oven.
Life hasn't been easy for Harper but, lately, cooking has been giving him confidence and a sense of control.
"Cooking makes be feel calm and relaxed," Harper says. "It's my passion."
In four months, Harper will be eligible to leave Optimist. If he fulfills the terms of his probation, he will be free and on his own. It's an exciting and daunting time, he said, but his hours in the kitchen are preparing him for whatever may lie ahead.
Harper is currently in Optimist's Independent Living Program, which provides a place to live for teenage boys on probation who, for a variety of reasons, cannot return home.
"The purpose of the program is to train them to live independently before they leave us," said the program's Director of Development Jennifer D'Alvarez.
The cooking program was established two months ago by Pasadena chef Susie Parker. A longtime nurse, Parker began pursuing her passion for cooking professionally in 2011 and currently runs a catering business.
She said she was inspired to begin volunteering at Optimist after attending an exhibit of paintings by boys in the Independent Living Program. Shortly thereafter she joined Optimist's advisory board and launched the cooking program.
"I wanted to bring them together as a group and as a team," Parker said. "And, to open a world of opportunity."
Parker's class began with the basics, she said. There were classes about kitchen safety and how to stock a pantry with healthy, affordable foods.
There was also a feeling-out period where Parker had to earn the trust of the boys, many of whom have a history of problems with authority figures.
"You guys definitely pushed the envelope at first," Parker told Harper and Isaak Okita, with a laugh. "I knew what it was all about. I raised a son."
Eventually, said Okita, 18, Parker won the boys over.
"Momma Susie always comes back," Okita said. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, we'll come back,' but they never do. Momma Susie said she would come back, and she did."
For Okita, cooking is a coping mechanism. He'll be at Optimist until at least June, he said, and he needs to stay focused.
"It's good for me because it's hard to do things when you're locked up," he said. "This keeps us busy, keeps our mind off other things, and keeps our mind on our program."
Harper and Okita have come a long way in the program, Parker said, not only as chefs but as young men.
"These guys are so, so smart," she said. "Their skills and collaboration have improved greatly. Their respect for each other has improved greatly. They've really come to see a different world."
Harper and Okita said cooking and eating together has helped to form bonds between boys in the program.
"Ever since my great-grandmother died, we don't have family dinners anymore on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Fourth of July," Okita said. "We're just dispersed. So when Momma Susie came here to help us, and we sit down like a big family to eat, it warms my heart. It helps me."
Okita said he doesn't have many fond memories of those family dinners, but he's now enjoying the meals at Optimist.
"We're all family here, we all take care of each other," he said. "It's mutual."
Neither Okita nor Harper are certain what life holds beyond the program and the comfort of their Optimist family.
Harper said he's getting closer to being prepared for the outside world, while Okita keeps a steely focus on the present.
But they both said they've learned one valuable lesson, which they're confident will serve them well once they leave Optimist.
"Always put love into your food," Harper said. "And make sure people love your food."