USA: a San Quentin prison culinary program and its restaurant-ready inmates

The scent of brown butter and toasted pine nuts wafts from the H Unit kitchen of the oldest prison in California, where eight inmates are learning to make gnocchi. Outside, the building is surrounded by guards and razor wire. But inside save for the knives chained to the work stations this could be any restaurant kitchen.

These men are focused, considerate and full of gratitude for the four hours they spend every Wednesday under the guidance of chef Huw Thornton, whose résumé includes stints at San Francisco’s A16 and SPQR. He’s a volunteer with Quentin Cooks, one of 80 rehabilitation programs at this medium security prison, which is home to nearly 4,000 incarcerated men, including those on death row.

“I’m just trying to better myself, stay out of trouble,” says Phillip Sims, folding his long, 6-foot-plus frame over his pasta dough. Sims, 48, is serving six years for corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition. “I’ve worked warehouse jobs most of my life, but cooking is something I would look forward to doing every morning. It’s a job I can imagine keeping.”

Quentin Cooks organizers hope so, especially since Bay Area restaurateurs, including Gabriela Camara of San Francisco’s Cala and Erin Wade of Oakland’s Homeroom, have begun hiring people with conviction histories. Created in 2016, the program is funded entirely through donations and run by volunteers, including former Calavera chef Adelaar Rogers and former Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell.

The setting is designed to mimic a real commercial kitchen, with fresh ingredients, menu planning sessions and, at the end of the 12 week program, a four-course dinner served to 50 illustrious food industry guests.

“There’s no agenda,” says Thornton, who creates the curriculum. “Sometimes we focus on a region or cuisine. Sometimes on basics, like sauces. I ask the guys what they want to cook. Sometimes it’s steak. Sometimes it’s curry. We just want them to understand the basic skills and fast-paced culture of a kitchen.”

At the end, the men graduate with a Food Handler Certificate, which is required to work in any California restaurant. But what Quentin Cooks teaches them goes beyond knife skills. Prison life tends to encourage segregation, but throughout this course, inmates solve problems and build camaraderie with people from different backgrounds, a critical skill for life on the outside.

When they’re not chopping onions or learning to sear a rib-eye, Kerry Rudd and Darry “Brother D” Brown of Los Angeles are cracking jokes and building each other up to anyone who will listen.

“This guy’s an amazing writer, you should read his work,” says Brown, 46, about his friend. “Oh this guy’s all about his music, and it’s spiritual,” responds Rudd, 38, slapping Brown on the back. Rudd is in for first-degree burglary and has completed ten of his 12 years in prison.

Like the other rehabilitation programs Rudd participates in, including a journalism class run by KQED editors, he does it to gain experience and credits. Through Proposition 57, inmates earn credits that can ultimately reduce their sentences. Spending time with professionals who listen and are easy to work with also increases confidence, Rudd adds.

“For many of these men, this (class) is the moment in their custody when they regain their sense of self,” says Helanie Helnitzer, co-founder of Quentin Cooks and director of many programs at San Quentin. Her co-founder, Lisa Dombroski, is a former account executive with Chef’s Warehouse, who convinced the San Francisco food distributor to donate all the meat, dairy, dry goods and kitchen equipment. Another distributor, VegiWorks, donates produce.

“The restaurant industry needs people who want to work and the men need a path when they parole,” Dombroski says. “We treat them as if they’re in our kitchen, not like we’re in their prison.”

Thirty inmates have graduated from Quentin Cooks to date, and several are working in Bay Area restaurants now. They returned to the chow hall this week, along with representatives from potential employers, like Google and San Francisco’s Bi-Rite Market, for a meal prepared by Sims and the other graduating students, and to share words of wisdom about life on the outside.

“These people are my family,” says Joel McCarter, a 2017 graduate, describing his Smoke Berkeley employers, Tina Ferguson-Riffe and her son Sean Hagler, who were seated next to him at the dinner. He’s a cook at the barbecue joint and says he was shocked when Hagler handed him the keys to the restaurant after he served nine years for attempted robbery.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” says Ferguson-Riffe, who estimates that 70 percent of her staff have served time behind bars. “It takes time for people to break through after prison, but I can see (Joel) opening up.”

Back in the kitchen, Sims and the other students button up their pressed chef’s whites, as they prep the meal, topping paper plates of grilled shrimp with fennel picked from the hills behind the barracks. There’s toast with ricotta, favas and peas, and beef with cauliflower, snap peas and Calabrian chiles.

After dinner, Thornton calls them up one by one and presents their food-handling certificates. There’s applause, handshakes, even a few hugs.

“I wish you all success,” past graduate Yaya Cooke tells the hopeful grads. “It’s not easy. You have to want it. Cream rises. Be the cream.”

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