Quentin Cooks teaches inmates culinary skills and more
By Bill Sessa, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
From the appetizer – crostini covered in an olive tomatillo spread – to the apple walnut torte with caramel sauce for dessert, the menu for a recent five-course dinner was like many that can be found at eateries near the shores of San Francisco Bay. But the menu was about more than food. It included pride and freedom, too.
The dining hall of San Quentin’s “H Unit,” with its metal tables bolted to the floor and concrete walls, lacks the ambience or the bayside view of nearby restaurants. But for six inmates who recently completed the Quentin Cooks program, the opportunity to show off their newly earned culinary skills to about 40 special guests was as rewarding as earning a Michelin star.
Tutored by some of the most well-known chefs in the San Francisco Bay area over 12 weeks, the Quentin Cooks students learned basic kitchen skills, reviewed the best practices for handling food and reducing waste and learned how to build a menu. They also honed their craft in the real time of a fast-paced and crowded commercial kitchen. The Quentin Cooks “classroom” was a kitchen shared with the housing unit’s normal dining crew while it prepared meals for 850 inmates.
Approximately 30 inmates have graduated from the Quentin Cooks program since its inception in June 2016. A few have found employment in restaurants since being paroled, although that is not necessarily the primary purpose behind the program.
“We want inmates to be successful, however they define it,” said Lisa Dombroski, one of two volunteers who began the program. “We hold these inmates accountable for what they do outside of the kitchen, too.”
Dombroski, a former chef and food broker who has also worked with at-risk youth, said inmates are carefully selected for the program. “We pick inmates who have less than a year left to serve so they can use the skills they learn with the food handling certificate if they choose to go into culinary work.”
She said the program breaks down barriers among inmates and builds teamwork, critical for working in a commercial kitchen where every move is choreographed and where the pace can be chaotic.
“Everyone in the program really champions the need for teamwork,” said Dombrowski. “We all check our ego at the door and all of us are a team,” she added. “We remind the inmates that they are serving people who are supporting this and want them to succeed.”
The inmate’s pride was evident as they served their guests at what felt like an exclusive dinner party, at least by prison standards. After a quick clean up and turn-around of the dining hall, the Quentin Cooks, outfitted in white smocks emblazoned with the program’s logo, served each course on upscale paper plates, explaining how each dish was prepared and seasoned as the courses came and went.
The Quentin Cooks program has been as much a learning experience for the tutoring chefs as the inmates. “I grew up in a bad neighborhood,” recalled Tu David Bpu, a cookbook author, chef and contestant in the Top Chef TV series. “I went one way, and other people went the other and I wanted to find out why,” he said. “The inmates are teaching me stuff, too.”
For most people, food is about taste. To the teachers and inmates in the Quentin Cooks program, food is also about trust. “Breaking bread with people is one of the most trustworthy and intimate things that two people can do,” added Bpu, as he showed inmates how seasoning progressively changed the broth they were preparing for dinner. “Good food makes people feel human.”
Cal Peternelle was a chef for 22 years at Chez Panisse, one of the Bay area’s most celebrated restaurants, before opening his own restaurant recently. “When I heard that Bpu was doing this, I jumped in too,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in teaching and sharing the privilege of working in nice restaurants.”
“These inmates have been incredibly committed and are hard workers,” said Peternelle. “They were ready to be inspired by good chefs and are really prepared for the future if they want to become an entry level prep cook.”
Some of the program’s inmate graduates may be inspired to follow a culinary career. Aaron Tillis, the lead cook in the H Unit, is one of them, hoping to be accepted in a culinary school when he paroles. But in the meantime, working with food has other value for him. “It reminds me of family,” he said as he delicately placed apple slices on a pastry shell to create the evening’s dessert. “Even if we didn’t see each other the rest of the year, food always brought the family together at holidays.”
Huw Thornton is the Quentin Cooks’ lead instructor who works at Chef’s Warehouse, a commercial food brokerage and one of the two companies (along with VegiWorks, a commercial produce and specialty food supplier) that sponsor the all-volunteer program. One day, as he was grilling mushrooms and onions, one of the student inmates told him, “It smells like freedom.”
As the plates were cleared and the graduation speeches wound down, each of the six inmates was presented with their food safety certificates, a passport for getting a job in the restaurant business. Their proud smiles showed that, for them, the recent weeks had been about far more than learning how to season chicken breasts with fingerling potatoes.