SILVER SPRING – Thierry Musel watches quietly from the kitchen doorway of Shepherd’s Table, a Silver Spring soup kitchen, as a line of men and women eager for a plate of food begins to assemble.
A full-time cook at Shepherd’s Table, Musel, 48, works five days a week from noon to 8 p.m., and weekends as a volunteer, preparing dinner for an average of 150 hungry clients each night.
Unlike many who work at the soup kitchen, Musel better understands what it means to be without a home or hot meal, because he has been there before.
“I am a former homeless person,” Musel readily admits. “I had a drinking problem . . . I was such a mess I honestly don’t remember much of what I did for 29 years.”
But he has not forgotten the years he spent living in shelters, nursing a habit that began when he was 11 and still living in France.
Nor has he forgotten the friends he went to rehab with, who still cling to their addictions — friends he sees in the eyes of many who come to eat the meals he works each day to provide.
And he lives for his daughter, Aline, 10, who now lives in Buffalo, N.Y., with his ex-wife.
“I’m a sober drunk,” said Musel, who cleaned up more than seven years ago. “Being here reminds me of where I’ve come from. . . . When I feel bad and feel like drinking, I just have to look in the dining room.”
Musel first came to Shepherd’s Table as a client at the end of 1996, but soon began using his skills in the kitchen to help the former cook who was suffering from health problems.
As he began to straighten out his life, Musel took a job at a Bethesda restaurant and worked weekends at Shepherd’s Table, where he felt safe and supported.
But he wasn’t ready for the pressures that came with being a full-time cook at a fancy French restaurant, so when he was asked to give up his weekends at Shepherd’s Table to work more hours at the restaurant, he said no.
So he was fired.
“I was a drunk and never got fired,” Musel teased in his thick French accent. “I got sober, and I got fired for the first time in my life.”
He smiles easily as he recounts the story of his life, and laughs at his own mistakes. But still there is sadness behind his smile, perhaps nostalgia for what could have been.
Musel admits he never wanted to be a soup kitchen cook, though he spent many years learning the craft of cooking by working with his older brother, Patrick, 50, a pastry chef at a D.C. restaurant, who also helps out at the White House.
“I never became a star like my brother,” Musel said. “I’m the black sheep in my family.”
But Musel’s brother does not consider himself a star and says Thierry is equally talented, despite the years he spent under the influence.
“I always thought of him as being smarter than me,” his brother said. “I don’t understand what he learned from me, but if he learned anything from me I’m happy. It’s a free gift I didn’t know about.”
Although the two brothers rarely speak and acknowledge their lives are different, Patrick is proud of what his brother has accomplished since becoming sober.
“I think he has more merit than me because I never had the problems that he had,” Patrick said. “It was hard enough for him to admit he had a problem, so to fix it was not very easy, I’m sure.”
Musel has developed a deep sense of commitment to Shepherd’s Table, which has not closed its doors in 20 years.
During Hurricane Isabel, he cooked dinner for nine days using only a microwave and a flashlight.
“He has a very strong work ethic,” said Jacki Coyle, executive director of Shepherd’s Table. “He has a great love for the people we serve . . . and he understands better than most what their life is like.”
Musel also has the ability to turn odd food donations into culinary treats.
“He has a tremendous ability to make something good out of many different pieces,” said Coyle.
Adrienne McBride, communication and development coordinator for Shepherd’s Table, is equally impressed with Musel’s talent.
“I think it’s just amazing how he uses the donations so he can feed so many people,” said McBride. “It’s like the loaves and the fishes how he can make so little go so far. People appreciate his cooking, and that’s very gratifying.”
Clients who return night after night agree.
“Thierry’s an excellent cook,” said Cheryl Hart, 52, who enjoys Musel’s chicken and rice the most.
“I consider Thierry my personal chef,” says one woman, who identified herself as “Rabbit.” “This place is very important because I’m perpetually broke. Even though I’m not homeless, it fills a need.”
Musel darts into the kitchen after greeting several clients to make sure there is enough pizza in the oven. There is a twinkle in his eye.
“What makes me happy is when I get to prepare a good meal and the clients are happy and I know they have a full stomach, even if they’re on the streets,” Musel said.
“To do something useful makes me happy. I’m doing something good finally, for the first time in my life.”