Abdoulaye Sylla, 53, towers over the tray of green beans he’s carefully wrapping in plastic, a chef hat perched on his head. He’s focused until his apron-clad partner makes him grin.
They’re preparing dinner for the 150 people experiencing food insecurity who will fill the dining room in a few hours. Sylla cooks to bring a smile to their faces.
“Every time you make something, it comes from here,” Sylla said, holding a hand over his heart. “The reward is to see people appreciate it.”
Before he was working as a chef at Silver Spring, Md., nonprofit Shepherd’s Table, Sylla was eating there.
He experienced homelessness for most of 2020 and frequented the facility for food and social services. While getting back on his feet, he vowed to use his culinary background to give back to the homeless community. Sylla joined Shepherd’s Table as a chef this August and quickly became a beacon of positivity and encouragement among his coworkers and meal guests.
“Everyone has their calling,” Sylla said. “For me, it’s helping people.”
Sylla has lived by that notion since he was seven years old.
The youngest of nine, Sylla grew up in Guinea in West Africa, where his father was an ambassador. Every month, his village would get a truckload of food as part of his father’s pay. Sylla recalls people from a neighboring village with less money standing at the fence that divided them, staring longingly at the food being unloaded.
“They’re my friends, we go to the same school,” Sylla remembered thinking. “Why shouldn’t we have the same things? Why shouldn’t we eat the same things?”
The first-grader convinced the deliverymen to toss bags of food over the fence to share.
When he was 14, Sylla moved with his family to Ottawa, Canada, where he finished high school and attended Ottawa University. After graduating, he followed his brother into the restaurant management industry, took a culinary training program through food services and facilities management company Sodexo and landed a job in food service. The kitchen became Sylla’s happy place. He loved getting creative with new dishes and bringing joy to people through food.
“Keeping in mind who you’re serving is very important,” he said.
Over the years, Sylla held different restaurant jobs, got married and moved to Hyattsville. While working at an auto parts shop in 2020, he collapsed on the job from three artery blockages caused by stress. The doctor said he was lucky to be alive. If he was going to make a full recovery, he’d need to make some major life changes.
Change came, but not in the way Sylla hoped.
After being discharged from the hospital, he returned home to find his wife had left and taken their money and documents with her. Sylla was on his own in a different country with nothing to his name. In a matter of weeks, he lost his housing and job and began living on the streets.
Reflecting on his experience with homelessness, Sylla isn’t most disturbed by the memories of sleeping outside or searching for every meal, although these experiences have deeply affected him. In his typical selfless fashion, Sylla gets most emotional about being unable to provide for his family back in Guinea.
“I’m the only one [in the United States] so they depend on me,” he said, grabbing a tissue. “Imagine when I was down, they were because I couldn’t send money.”
When times got especially tough, Sylla thought of what his family would say. He pictured his dad rooting him on, or his mother scolding him for losing faith in himself. Their guidance and his relationship with God made him feel less alone and encouraged him to keep moving forward.
On a cold day in December 2020, a man gave Sylla five dollars for a meal and called a local shelter for him. They were out of beds, but the stranger told Sylla that he’d find a way to help. He got Sylla a caseworker, who brought Sylla to Interfaith Works, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter in Rockville.
“I took about 48 hours just to rest, to get rid of that fatigue and clear my mind,” Sylla said. “Be grateful to have a place to shower, eat, get clothes and actually talk to people.”
After taking a breather, Sylla hit the ground running. He put his name down for every vocational program that Interfaith offered and landed a spot at a computer skills training in Rockville. Eager to reenter the culinary world, he took a job as a dishwasher at a hotel in Bethesda.
On his first day, Sylla’s boss asked if he could cover food preparation for a chef that had called out sick. That was all it took. “Why are you doing the dishes?” he asked, and hired Sylla as a chef.
Sylla worked there for six months before losing his job due to COVID-19, but the taste of potential lingered.
“Once you get your dignity back, you say to yourself, ‘I didn’t fall, I tripped,’” Sylla said. “Now, you have a choice. It’s either you let your back hit the ground and you lay there, or you refuse to let your back hit the ground.
“I knew as long as I have a place to lay my head and eat and give myself peace of mind, there’s nothing that I’m not capable of doing. No excuses.”
That attitude got him a job as a team leader at a Giant Food in Baltimore and a few months later, a tray runner position at George Washington University Hospital. Sylla took pride in getting to know the patients and even started an initiative to refer to them by name rather than room number.
During this time, Sylla was also going to Shepherd’s Table for meals and services. In 2021, they helped him get an apartment in Glenmont and start the process of replacing lost documents. Sylla was inspired by Shepherd’s Table’s work, particularly in the kitchen. He missed being the one showing others compassion by cooking for them.
“What does it take to work in this kitchen?” he’d ask the food staff.
He promised the friends he ate with that one day, he’d be making their meals.
Shepherd’s Table Executive Director Manny Hidalgo was surprised when Sylla approached him about a job in the kitchen. He had no idea that Sylla was a classically trained chef.
“That’s something that happens a lot with the immigrant community; you never know what hidden histories, talents, experiences [immigrants have],” Hidalgo said. “It shows you how homelessness can affect every single one of us. None of us are immune to the possibility of losing everything.”
Hidalgo floated the idea of an internship in the kitchen, and Sylla immediately accepted. A few months passed as Shepherd’s Table staff worked out the details of the position. Sylla sent in his resume and waited for a response. He made it his mission to hound them, calling and asking for updates any chance he got. Finally, the day arrived.
Sylla sat down for an interview with Christina Moore, the director of meal services. Their conversation sealed the deal.
“Miss Christina looked at me and said, ‘I have faith in you,’” Sylla said through tears. “It was a while since I’d heard that.
“For her to feel that, see how genuine I was and how bad I wanted it, there’s no price on that. It’s gold. More than that. I remember telling her, ‘You will never regret this decision. Not on my watch.’ I’ll take that to my grave because I don’t want her disappointed.”
The first meal Sylla made in Shepherd’s Table’s kitchen was a yucca stew — a menu staple today called “Abdoul’s Medley.” He says the experience of cooking for people again with a job opportunity on the table was beautiful.
Sylla interned for a month before Moore decided to bring him on the team.
“I was like, ‘We have a chef on our hands. I want him to be treated as such,’” Moore said. “He’s very hungry. He has all these great ideas and sees everything that’s going on in the kitchen. Everything that he needs to learn can be taught but he has these gifts that are going to make him a really great leader.”
The job has reignited his passion for cooking and allowed him to help people through food and beyond. He’s able to send remittances to his family again and plans to visit them next year once he gets his new passport.
Moore gets emotional when describing Sylla’s journey.
“With every win he gets, he’s more inspired and more confident,” Moore said. “His light just keeps getting brighter and brighter. It’s such a beautiful thing to witness someone coming from the streets to earning their own success and really working for it and getting everything they deserve.”
Sylla’s favorite part of working at Shepherd’s Table has been serving as an example for the friends he used to live and eat with.
“My job, since I’ve been here, doesn’t start or end in the kitchen,” Sylla said. “You go out there and they’re like, ‘You said you were going to do it and you did it.’ That’s my purpose. I can do it. So can you.”
This January, Sylla will help run the nonprofit’s inaugural Culinary Skills Workshop, which will help clients obtain culinary certificates and find food service jobs in the Silver Spring area. Moore believes Sylla’s presence will inspire participants to step up to the challenge and hopes to see him run the program one day.
Sylla goes quiet when asked what he hopes to impart to his friends.
“Trust, believing in themselves,” he said finally, shaking his head and smiling. “They’re going to be so happy. It’s going to be a good experience, I know it.
“If you don’t come out with anything else, come out knowing you can if you want to, and learn how to grasp an opportunity when it arises. It’s up to you. And let’s have fun.”