- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

While teaching and catering in Costa Rica many years ago, Liesel Flashenberg had what she calls “a breakthrough moment” that changed her life and led to what today is an unusual nonprofit called Through the Kitchen Door International.

She and her husband, both successful Washington-area professionals, became expats in 1991 for eight years to raise their three young children — boys then aged 4, 5 and 7 — in a less stressful and frantic environment.

“We were jealous of others getting to raise them,” she says, “and as long as we were changing our lives to give our kids more of a worldview, we thought eventually that maybe we could start a business.”

Her husband, Daniel Nachtigal, was a lawyer. Some of his clients were agricultural co-ops. She was a telecommunications consultant and a serious avocational cook. They entertained in Costa Rica, and soon she had offers to cater as well as to teach schoolchildren who, she says, “never had learned to boil water.”

In one 24-hour period, she says, she catered for a French ambassador who complimented her work and also heard from a woman who had participated in a training program Ms. Flashenberg had established for local women to learn kitchen skills — enough so that some could earn a living.

The trainee told her: “Today I could pack up my children and leave the man who has been beating me for 25 years because I know now I can support myself.”

“You can tell which one resonated with me the most,” Ms. Flashenberg says. “The subtext became the curriculum of what we are doing today.”

As well as teaching healthy cooking and self-sufficiency, the lessons — forerunners of the couple’s current training program — were meant to instill self-confidence and a sense of worth in Hispanic women who otherwise might not feel valued in the professional world.

When the family returned from Costa Rica for the boys to attend high school in 1999, “we had no idea what we might do, but, seeing everything going on and given population changes in the area, we plunged in,” Ms. Flashenberg says. The couple became high-powered social entrepreneurs who have trained more than 400 people locally and have begun an after-school program for at-risk young people. Of the 40 current trainees, some have part-time jobs, and others are mothers wanting part-time work.

Ms. Flashenberg repeated her story most recently for members of the D.C. chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators. The group of volunteers was assembled at St. Paul’s Rock Creek Episcopal Church in Northwest, where Through the Kitchen Door rents the kitchen space that serves as its main cooking facility.

The chapter, which has adopted the charity as its pro bono project for the year, pledges to donate proceeds from its annual ball in March.

Through the Kitchen Door operates on several levels, deriving about 60 percent of its income from catering and benefit events. The rest comes from foundations and solicitations. In a recent fundraiser, called a Family Fun-Raiser, Kitchen Door staff prepared ahead two dinners for four people - a colorful Mexican and Spanish-flavored menu - to be delivered to each subscriber’s home for $444. Part of the proceeds helped feed a needy family.

The idea was dreamed up in part by Mr. Nachtigal, who says pointedly, “I hate going to galas.”

Workshop trainees are required to take a weeklong preliminary course, for which they receive an hourly wage, before they graduate to what amounts to staff positions - and more pay. The catering service has been hired by churches, schools and other nonprofits in the Greater Washington area.

In the summer, the organization uses a kitchen on the Shady Grove campus of the University of Maryland’s hospitality program for training and, last summer, catering meals for 17 homeless families.

Recipes are as heart-friendly and low-cholesterol as possible - a dramatic change for many of the enrollees. For the Fun-Raiser, the women made grease-free empanadas, salsas, chilies en nogada, roasted squash, spinach salad with a lemon-ginger dressing, and coconut flan.

“Before, I never did any cooking,” admits Nancy Hinojosa, 45, of Gaithersburg, an immigrant from Ecuador with children ages 10 and 13. “My mom did it.”

“The most important thing is to read labels. And I learned from Liesel to know about calories and proportion and the economy,” she says, pausing while preparing meals for delivery in dozens of plastic containers.

In another room, a group is getting a lesson in using a new professional $4,000 mixer. Elsewhere, the legal administrator crowd is chatting and laughing while sorting and assembling recipes into plastic folders.

“Almost every day there is something happening,” says the rail-thin Ms. Flashenberg, a bundle of energy even on bad days. Whole Foods Market in Rockville, for instance - a supporter of Through the Kitchen Door since 2004 — recently donated 5 percent of a day’s sales. The nonprofit last month began a WIN WIN program — Women In Need with Wellness, Independence and Nutrition — directed at female survivors of domestic violence.

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