When you watch Danny Torres prepare mofongo — a Puerto Rican dish that contains fried plantains, garlic, chicken stock, and a healthy dose of butter — you can tell he knows his way around a kitchen.

But for Torres, who's been cooking for years, the kitchen at 420 Common Street in downtown Lawrence is different. Starting Thursday, he’ll be running his own fast-casual restaurant there: El Encanto, or “The Charm.” And he won’t have pay rent or cover any startup costs.

The space in question is the permanent home of Lawrence’s Revolving Test Kitchen. Torres' stay the will be rent-free, thanks to the largesse of Northern Essex Community College, which owns the building. And he'll cook on equipment provided by Sal Lupoli, a local pizza magnate turned real-estate developer. 

"To open a restaurant today, you probably need about a half a million dollars," Lupoli said recently. "A half a million dollars to somebody in Lawrence, you might as well be talking $20 million. It’s just not going to happen."

Back in 2014, Lupoli opened a pizza shop at 420 Common Street. But over time, he decided the space had more potential as an incubator, giving budding restauranteurs equipment and training they otherwise might not get. With that, the Revolving Test Kitchen was born.

A budding young restauranteur, Lupoli said, "doesn’t know what it’s like to be an accountant, or understand insurance or marketing. He or she knows how to work really hard, 100 hours a week, which is the first thing you need. ... So I backstop them with my organization. I teach them all the things they need to know."

It’s a pretty sweet deal, but there are a few strings attached. For starters, would-be tenants have to compete for the spot; in the current cycle, Torres beat out around a dozen other candidates.

Also, the winner is asked to keep their food affordable, so community-college students and other locals can fit meals in their budget. They’re also urged to make a long-term commitment to Lawrence — because, as Mayor Dan Rivera explained, the hope is that the Test Kitchen will do much more than just boost the individuals who occupy it.

"When you can have a restaurant in downtown Lawrence, with a menu like theirs, it lets other people say hey, that’s possible, maybe this thing is possible," Rivera said. "If I do just a little bit like they’re doing, it becomes infectious."

Derek Mitchell puts it a bit differently. He’s the head of the Lawrence Partnership, which orchestrates the program and makes sure whoever’s operating the kitchen has whatever outside help they might need, from technical assistance to mentoring.

"It’s really creating a catalytic effect that has trickle-down impacts," Mitchell said. "So we’ll throw [in] mentoring, technical assistance, access to financing; we’ll help him build a market and try out new products. The end goal is, he’s able to open a brick and mortar shop right here in Lawrence, and continue to grow and create jobs."

Which is exactly what's happening with Ray Gonzalez, the Test Kitchen's first resident. He used to run a food truck specializing in Mexican-Puerto Rican fusion cuisine. Now, he's preparing to open his own brick-and-mortar spot, Coco Ray's, this spring. 

"We’re going to have a counter here, hot holding here, cold holding here," Gonzalez said, gesturing around the South Lawrence space where Coco Ray's is currently under construction. "A countertop facing this way, and then over here, we're going to have, like, a little lounge area."

Gonzalez notes that he might have gone the brick-and-mortar route even without his Test Kitchen tenure. But he also said his stint there left him much more likely to succeed.

"With this plan that I have right now, the map that I have right now, due to the education I got from them and the time they took me to teach this — [I'm a] lot more confident right now." he said.

As Danny Torres preps for El Encanto’s grand opening — along with his father, Hilton, who’ll be the head chef — he sounds pretty confident as well.

"I really hope I can have a restaurant where I do full service with waitresses, busboys, the whole nine yards," Torres said. "Our most ambitious goal will be having our own factory where we can bottle sauces ... do our own empanada doughs. There’s a big market for empanadas."

Ambitious plans, coming from someone who's just beginning to run his own restaurant. But that's exactly the way Lawrence’s Revolving Test Kitchen is supposed to work.