'Mija, how old are you?" manager Patricia Zarate calls out across Homegirl Cafe's new dining room in downtown L.A.
"Nineteen," Alma Cova, a petite mother with cat eyes, tosses back as she whips up a late breakfast for an assortment of city hall staffers, downtown professionals, families and neighborhood denizens. One of the first hires when the cafe opened this past October, Cova arrived with few honed skills. Two months later, Zarate is still amazed: "I had no idea how talented she was."
A division of Homeboy Industries -- founded by one of L.A.'s patron saints, Father Greg Boyle -- Homegirl Cafe employs tattooed ex-gang members, single mothers and other at-risk youth, teasing out their natural creativity as they earn some cash. As such, the real story is what these nascent chefs have conjured, though you wouldn't know that from talking to Cova. "We just make the food like Patty tells us to," she says with a shrug.
Imagination, vibrant colors and unvarnished textures go into constructing Zarate's trademark "Mexican fusion." "A lot of people say, 'This isn't Mexican food, '" the Guadalajara-born immigrant says. "That's fine. Call it whatever you want."