The kitchen is clean. Almost spotless.

It’s well-stocked, and there’s an order to everything. Mixing bowls here. Measuring cups there. A digital scale to weigh out ingredients.

The recipes — for pastries and cakes, tarts and frosting — demand precision. Focus.

And Darrius Thomas is in control. Of all of it.

It wasn’t always like that for him. There were too many moments of chaos. Too much messiness. There was uncertainty — about where he might sleep, about where his next meal might come from — and a lack of control.

So the kitchen became his sanctuary. It was the place where everything made sense, where he could rise above his station and create something beautiful, something delicate and near-perfect. Something that made people happy.

He’s 27 now. He’s safe, because he was careful. And he was careful because he had help and support in the moments when it was most needed, unlike many young men and women who grow up poor in the parts of Chicago where violence becomes a white noise and gangs offer to fill the role of nurturer, in their own twisted ways.

He stands before a stainless steel table at the French Pastry School in the Loop, following the recipe for a hazelnut dacquoise. He pounds the hazelnuts into a powder, toasts them, makes sure his egg whites have the right body.

He returns to a South Side after-school culinary program that was his road to salvation and teaches kids how to pipe frosting and mold fondant. He decorates cakes with an elegance that earned him first-place prizes over and over again throughout high school.

He is what happens when things break right. When the right people step in and the wrong people are shut out. He is the exception, sadly.

He knows that. And it fuels him.

Darrius Thomas is a baker. He is a cake decorator. He is potential that could have gone untapped, that could have been lost to prison or a bullet. He’s what Chicago is missing out on when young lives are squandered.

And we could all learn a little something from him.

It started badly. Life, that is.

Bad enough that Darrius and his siblings were pulled from their home in the Ida B. Wells public housing complex by their maternal grandmother.

“I was the one that discovered they were being left alone in the house with no food to eat and all that,” said Bonnie Aldridge, who went on to raise Darrius. “One day I decided I would stop by and the kids, they were in the house by themselves and the oldest one that was there was 5 years old. I looked in the fridge and the only thing in there was a half gallon of milk and some water. They weren’t eating.

“I had to quit my job to take them over. They’d been through so much.”

Darrius was 3 in 1992 when the Department of Children and Family Services put him, his younger brother, Semaj, and two other siblings in the care of his grandmother.

He has a hazy memory of being in a courtroom with his siblings.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Darrius said. “But I knew that after that day, we would live with my grandmother.”

They went to her Far South Side home, around 98th Street and Ingleside Avenue. Darrius’ memory of that moment becomes clearer: “I remember that first day. I do. She gave us a hot meal and a hot bath. And she let us watch TV. It felt normal. We hadn’t had that.”

Grandma was not one to be trifled with — she had already raised seven girls of her own and wasn’t about to let any newcomers get out of line. There was no swearing. There was no questioning her decisions. She wouldn’t allow the children to even use the words “lie” or “liar.”

But there was always food, and praise or a reward when something was done well.

“I felt like I finally had a family,” Darrius said. “Like I finally had a home.”

It was like that for many years. Safe. Predictable.

But as Bonnie got older, health problems made it harder to care for herself and others. During high school, Darrius and Semaj, who is one year younger, had to go live with a relative in the heart of the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood.

“It was rough,” Darrius said. “We’d come home from school and there were 16 guys in front dealing drugs.”

Some of the old problems returned. There wasn’t always food. They didn’t always feel welcome.

But the brothers — who had clung tight to each other their whole lives — would save their money and buy food, stashing away snacks for nights when there was no meal at home.

That money came from working. Cooking, to be specific. When he was 14, Darrius discovered an After School Matters culinary program run by Chef Gloria Hafer.

The program pays students a stipend. Semaj followed his brother into Hafer’s kitchen. That’s where they got money to feed themselves when nothing was on the table.

It’s also where both of them found a path out of Englewood.

Hafer is safer. That’s the chef’s motto. She tells the kids in her kitchen in a South Side church basement that they’re part of her gang, not any other: “I’d tell them, ‘Stick with me and I’ll make you famous. Stick with the gangs out there and they’ll make you dead.'”

She remembers Darrius and his brother entering the program. Skinny kids. Quiet.

“Two lost boys,” she said. “You could tell something was bothering them.”

And she knew she could help: “If I can get them in here, if they’ll just listen and understand that there are other options, they can make it.”

That’s the problem so many kids like Darrius and Semaj face. They can’t see options beyond the lives that unfold in front of them. The gangs. The pack of guys dealing drugs outside their home. The failings of the family members who were supposed to be their rocks.

Darrius said that his father died when he was young, and he doesn’t have a relationship with his mother. There was only his grandmother, and when he had to leave her during high school, everything could have easily slipped away.

He knows how he could have wound up. He recites it, cringing a bit, like he knows how cliche it sounds: Dead or locked up.

But his grandmother had given him strength of spirit — “She made sure that by the time we left her house, we could be respectful and well-rounded enough that we could survive” — and Chef Hafer gave him a way to channel his anger and fears.

The first cake Darrius decorated looked like Homer Simpson. It wasn’t a messy first try. It was neat. Artful. The kind of cake you’d buy.

Hafer pushed him into decorating competitions, and he started winning. First place. First place.

“After that second one, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is what I want to do,'” Darrius said. “The way Chef Hafer talked to me, I could tell she had confidence in me.”

About a year and a half into the program, Hafer knew she had Darrius on the right track.

“There comes that point where a light goes on,” she said. “You can just see it.”

Semaj also had a seemingly innate skill for baking and decorating.

“They loved working with cake and candy,” Hafer said. “And that’s an art. These guys were artists.”

And they were being saved, insulated from the chaos of their unstable lives, finding sanctuary in the precision and delicacy of baking.

“It took the edge off,” Hafer said. “It made them focus on this and put other stuff on the back burner. It was a release from the stress.

“Darrius and Semaj just wanted someone who cared about them. They just needed somebody to say, ‘You can do this.'”

Darrius Thomas

Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune

While Hafer’s kitchen was a haven, life outside didn’t improve. Darrius managed to steer clear of trouble, but he and Semaj found themselves again searching for a place to live. They wound up renting a room in a dilapidated flop house.

Rock bottom came shortly after Darrius graduated high school, when they fell behind on rent and the landlord took their beds and removed the toilet, leaving an open pipe in the floor.

“That was the point where I said, ‘I gotta go,’ I don’t have a toilet or a bed. Who doesn’t have a toilet or a bed?”

Darrius wanted to go to the French Pastry School — which he had been invited to visit after winning a cake competition — and chase down his dream of opening a bakery. But with no money and barely a home, he felt lost.

Then he saw a television ad for the Navy.

“Something told me, ‘That is your meal ticket. That will get you out.'”

It did. Within two weeks, he was at boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, north of Chicago. Semaj had a girlfriend and her family took him in, so Darrius knew his little brother would be safe.

When the recruiter pulled his car around the alley behind that wretched flop house to pick Darrius up for boot camp, the young man knew a chapter was ending.

“I knew I was changing my life,” he said. “I knew this was the point where things would never be the same again. Would I have a place to sleep or eat? All that worry. I knew that that was over.

Darrius has a line inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes tattooed on his forearm. It stands out amid a swirl of body art that ranges from Chicago White Sox devotion to a “Death Before Dishonor” tattoo from his Navy days.

The tattoo reads: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a one-winged bird, it cannot fly.”

After joining the Navy, Darrius wouldn’t let go of his dreams. But it was hard.

In his rush to escape Englewood and a swiftly crumbling life, he overlooked a key skill all sailors need — the ability to swim.

“I’d never been in anything deeper than my grandma’s bathtub,” Darrius said.

On the third day of training, he heard the words he feared: “We’re going to the pool.”

Everyone had to pass a swimming test. For most, it wasn’t too hard — a deep water jump, a 50-yard swim and a 5-minute prone float.  

For Darrius, it seemed impossible. He failed repeatedly, every day for more than two months. In the morning he would run a couple of miles from the barracks to the pool, take the test and fail, run back to the barracks and then repeat the whole thing in the evening.

The stress finally got to him and he broke down one day in a bathroom stall, crying and close to giving up.

He was able to call his grandmother and recalls her saying this: “You didn’t come all the way there to fail. You didn’t come all the way there to quit. You’ve been through worse in your life.”

Darrius was in his bed that night and made a decision: The next day, he wasn’t leaving the pool without passing.

He made it — barely.

“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I will never have a feeling like that again.”

He began his naval service soon after and, as the recruiters promised, he saw the world. He witnessed poverty in India that put his own struggles in perspective. He got in trouble for partying too much and breaking curfew in Australia. He went to Haiti to help with hurricane relief.

After four years, he re-upped for another four, saving money as he went. He returned to Chicago last June and moved in with the family that previously took in his brother. By January, thanks to the GI Bill, Darrius was finally enrolled at the French Pastry School.

And the dream was still intact. Open a simple bakery. Decorate cakes to order. Bake fresh pastries each day.

“I get chills even talking about it,” he said. “I can see it happening. I know it’s going to happen.”

Chef Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-owner and dean of the French Pastry School, sees in Darrius the three key qualities any pastry chef needs: “He has a great attention to detail, he’s very hardworking and his attitude is on point.”

The chef learned about Darrius’ background, but only over time: “If you don’t question him, he would never, never tell you or tell anybody what he went through in his life to come to the French Pastry School. He’s very humble and reserved. You don’t become a successful pastry chef by mistake. I think his time in the Navy brought him the structure and the discipline that help him now.”

It certainly got him where he needs to be. It’s paying for his education, and the money he saved is supporting him while he’s in school.

The bakery is still just a dream. But Darrius knows he’s getting closer.

Semaj also continued baking and has risen through the ranks as a pastry chef at Hyatt hotels in Chicago.

On a recent afternoon, the two brothers were back in Hafer’s kitchen, helping kids in the culinary program prepare for a cake decorating competition and family night.

Darrius made a display cake for the event. It was Pokemon themed, bright yellow and red, sharply detailed and given a place of honor at the foot of the stage.

Semaj was a judge and he stopped at each group’s table to inspect their work, a series of video-game themed cakes, flanked with cupcakes and cookies for judges to taste.

Darrius comes most days to help the students. He shares techniques, and preaches precision.

“It’s neatness, I’m telling you,” he said to a group of students awaiting judgment on their cake. “If it’s neat, it’s going to look good.”

There it is again. Neatness. Order. The things Darrius and his brother lacked through swaths of their childhood are things they now embody.

Structure. Sanity. That’s what their grandmother gave them for as long as she could. It’s what Chef Hafer gave them until they were on their way. And it’s what they give now to other kids in Hafer’s program.

“I just want them to be able to take out of this what I took out,” Darrius said, surveying a room full of budding chefs.

Darrius Thomas

Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune

At the pastry school, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, Darrius stood in front of a food scale during a final exam, carefully weighing out ingredients for a puff pastry dough — 3 grams of white vinegar, 200 grams of water (cold), 14 grams of sea salt.

Baking is unforgiving. One careless error, one fraction of a gram too much of anything guarantees failure.

It mirrors Darrius’ life. It wouldn’t have taken much for him to fail. Under the circumstances, failure would’ve been understandable.

But he doesn’t like to fail.

He’s not perfect, as remarkable as his story seems — he’s got a stubborn streak, can overcommit as he seems driven to please everyone, and if he thinks he’s right about something he’s not afraid to say it, even if he’s later proven wrong.

“I do have a problem admitting when I don’t know or understand something,” he said. “I have something to prove. It’s because of my past.”

That’s the driver. That’s what has kept him determined, through high school, through hungry nights in Englewood, through eight years in the Navy, through the rigors of a pastry school that cuts no corners.

Darrius is a success story in a city of too many failures. He is a focused and fastidious example of what happens when people step in and step up to help the lost boys who often go ignored.

People like his grandmother. People like Chef Hafer.

There’s a sign above the mirror in Darrius’ room: “You are great. You will succeed.”

He looks at that every morning before he leaves for school.

He believes it. But to get to where he is now, he needed others who believed it too.

rhuppke@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RexHuppke

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