In the auditorium of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, with an hour left to prepare, David Simms buzzes from table to table: smoothing the blue tablecloths, centering the silver candelabras, fluffing the folded napkins blooming from their wine glasses.

"The glasses should be right next to the knives," Simms directs his tuxedoed waitstaff.

For the lunch for 100, Simms' sixth catering job of the week, he has prepared a menu of soul food, gourmet-style, including grilled salmon with orange pineapple demi-glace, baked macaroni and smoked Gouda cheese, collard greens, and "David's" potato salad, "because it's made my way," he explains with a wink.

Helping Simms put out the water glasses is Nasim Brown, who has a prison record for selling drugs. Hiring him is another thing Simms does "my way."

Twelve years ago, Simms, 43, lost his friends, his car, his catering business - everything he had - to a crack addiction.

After two years of chasing drugs, he found himself living with other broken men at One Day at a Time, a recovery center founded by a minister in North Philadelphia. There, Simms pieced his life back together.

Now he uses his catering business, Eatible Delights, on a stretch of Ridge Avenue working to revitalize, to empower young African American men to overcome their own obstacles.

"It is my duty as a business owner in this community, and as a Christian, not to turn my back," says Simms. "God didn't clean me up to keep it for myself. He cleaned me up to help others. We have to sow into other people's lives."

Simms employs five in-house staff, two from One Day at a Time. Based on his need, the number grows to 10 to 25 people a week. Last year he catered 250 events, from small to large.

He describes his food as "classic American cuisine," and says he's "heavily inspired" by Martha Stewart.

"Cooking is just all about being creative," says Simms, whose father was also a chef. "It's all about the recipe and how you present it."

In hiring, Simms says, he sees application after application littered with misspelled words and missing information. He's also struck by the number of job seekers with neither high school diploma nor driver's license, or with a criminal record.

Within the pool he searches for hints of potential - a willingness to work any shift, or something written under special skills and interests.

"Sometimes all people need is a chance and some encouragement," Simms testifies, "for you to believe in them."

He insists his employees set goals for themselves and helps them follow through.

Some, handwritten, are tacked on a cork board in the catering kitchen.

For Brown, 30, now balancing a plate of assorted breads at the museum luncheon, the goals read: (1) Get my credit right, (2) go back to school, (3) get a home for me and my family, and (4) work on getting my driver's license.

"Dave motivates me and inspires me to do a lot," says Brown, who served 31/2 years for selling drugs. "I don't know what position I'd be in if not for him."

Brown, fresh from prison, was sitting in a classroom of ex-offenders when Simms came to tell his story and pass out job applications.

Brown had grown up in North Philadelphia; he ran track at William Penn High School, which took him to East Stroudsburg University on a scholarship before he got caught up in "fast money," he says.

Unlike some inmates he met serving life for their mistakes, "I got an opportunity to go home," Brown says, "and get my life right."

He completed one of Simms' applications, one of many he filled out in the two months he had been home. As always, he checked the "yes" box on whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, and wrote that "if you give me the interview, I'll explain."

Then he forgot about it.

Two weeks later, Simms called Brown for an interview.

Since then Brown has become a key asset, handling meetings, organizing jobs, learning the business.

"When we do events and the people are happy," Brown says with a warm grin, "I feel good, like I made this happen."

Brown plans to go back to college in the fall to study business management, and he's on a payment plan to restore his driver's license, which he lost to thousands of dollars in tickets.

And he and his new bride have qualified for a mortgage to buy a home for their family of two children.

"I've never been happier than this time now," Brown says. "Now I'm doing things the right way."

Simms also has his eye on a brighter future.

"I want to become one of the largest caterers in the city," he says. "I'm patient, and I'm willing to do what it takes."

Among his satisfied customers is State Rep. Kenyatta Johnson (D., Phila.), who hired Simms to cater antiviolence banquets and mortgage-foreclosure workshops and describes his meals as "some of the best food I've ever tasted."

Along the 2300 block of Ridge Avenue, Simms rents a succession of properties - an office with his logo emblazoned on an awning, storage space, and an old restaurant with a large kitchen - across the street from a shuttered barbershop, a day-care center, and a Chinese takeout.

Potential clients "come into my office, and they're pleasantly surprised," he says.

Simms wants to add a third delivery truck and eventually own the properties he rents.

He also wants to expand the lives of his employees.

"If I can invest something in an employee, maybe he'll see that he needs to invest in his job, and it's a win-win for everybody involved."

Contact staff writer Kia Gregory at 215-854-2601 or kgregory@phillynews.com.