CDCR employees can view this video. A YouTube version is also at the bottom of the story.
By Bill Sessa, CDCR PIO
Video by Jeff Baur, Director, Television Communications Center
Office of Public and Employee Communications
It’s easy at first to think that the Quentin Cooks program is all about food. Food is certainly the focus, as volunteer chefs from the San Francisco Bay Area teach San Quentin inmates the skills they need to work in a culinary setting.
But Quentin Cooks is much more than a cooking school. The class emphasizes the personal bonds that are formed between those who prepare food and those who are served. It emphasizes teamwork, the ability to work with people of different backgrounds and personal responsibility for being accountable. Those skills are just as valuable for succeeding in life as they are in the chaotic environment of a commercial kitchen.
Quentin Cooks was created by two women who are veterans in the food industry, Helaine Melnitzer and Lisa Dombroski. They volunteered their time and expertise to start the class, believing they could teach inmates a skill that would make them employable in the restaurant business when they are released on parole. Their passion for the program was shared by a pair of former chefs who continue to work in the food industry.
Huw Thornton has worked in the kitchens of some well-known Bay Area restaurants, such as A16 and SPQR. Adelaar Rogers has also been a chef at Dry Creek Kitchen, Tribune Tavern and Calavra. Both eagerly volunteered to be instructors. Both are now sales associates for the Chef’s Warehouse, which donates dry goods, dairy products and meats to the program. Vegiworks, also in the Bay area, donates fresh produce for Quentin Cooks, which relies exclusively on volunteer donations and receives no state funding.
Inmates volunteer to get into the program. Quentin Cooks has just a few criteria for the dozen they choose for each 12-week session. The men cannot have academic or work assignments that conflict with the class schedule and they must show sustained good behavior. As a practical matter, priority is given to inmates who are close to their release date, so that they can put their newfound skills and certification to use in the job market.
Created in June 2016, the Quentin Cooks program teaches basic and advanced culinary skills; how to build a menu that balances nutrition, taste, texture, color and budget; and how to handle food safely and reduce waste. In addition to earning Rehabilitative Achievement Credits under Proposition 57, Quentin Cook graduates earn a Food Handling Certificate, required to work in the food industry.
Some of the 30 men who have a graduated from Quentin Cooks since its inception work in the food industry. Some work in other industries, applying the life skills the class instills.
“It doesn’t matter whether the graduates work in the food industry or not,” said Dombroski. “It’s important to us that they succeed at whatever they do when they leave prison.”
Quentin Cooks always has a waiting list of inmates who want to enroll. But at its recent graduation dinner, Melnitzer emphasized the long view of the class. “Quentin Cooks is not a ‘get out of jail’ card,” she said. “It’s a stay out of jail card.”
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Huw Thornton: Do you have your sauté pans? We’re going to break these up into shards…
Helaine: Melnitzer: The idea is to really duplicate a restaurant environment. There’s no down time in a restaurant environment.
Thornton: We’re going to get the burgers out of the walk-in…The idea is to strike a balance between technique, introducing stuff that they haven’t seen before, and also drawing from their suggestions every week.
We’re making chicken wings in a few different ways….
Aaron Tillus: We’re like cooking quality food like for restaurant standards. We use a lot of fresh vegetables and fresh ingredients, herbs and spices.
Jesus Hernandez: It definitely does bond us together. It makes us more stronger as men, especially when we work together in a kitchen, because you have to be able to work as a team in a kitchen.
Thornton: It’s funny that a cooking class has less to do with the cooking and more to do I think with the collaboration and some of the organizational stuff. Whether they pursue cooking or not on the outside the collaborative nature of this and the team effort nature of it, I think, will serve them well.
Hernandez: When I was kid, I burned a lot of stuff trying to cook for myself but eventually I made it myself and was able to cook and since then I’ve just always loved cooking different recipes.
Tillus: I grew up watching my mom and my grandmother cook, so I’ve been cooking since I was little and cooking has always been a passion of mine. When you cook for somebody you see the appreciation on their face when they enjoy a meal. It just makes me happy. I get joy from seeing other people eat good food.
Thornton: We had smaller menus I think at the beginning and we went slower and now we’re doing more as these guys get better and you can see their confidence is really starting to cement.
Melnitzer: Programs are valuable and they are valuable because they allow the men more insight into who they are today and who they want to be.
Tillus: My end goal is I want to open up my own restaurant later on in life. Cooking is a major part of my life and I’m going to continue to pursue it.