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Jail culinary program preaches power of food

Monday, March 07, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Samantha Bomkamp

"Oh. My. God!" Chef Bruno Abate exclaims, as he tastes a bite of lasagna, made from scratch by his group of student cooks. "When you eat this today you're going to say "Oh. My. God. Oh. My. God." This is Chef Bruno's kitchen, but these are not his hired hands. These are inmates at the Cook County Jail, all serving terms or awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses. The program is Recipe for Change, a course that teaches these men everything from knife skills and kitchen sanitation to recipes for pastas, sauces and desserts — key job skills they can use when they're released and looking for work. But Abate, owner of Wicker Park restaurant Tocco, says the most important lessons taught are the ones you can't quantify: self-esteem and the love of food.

Nearly two years old, Recipe for Change was created by Abate, a big, burly Italian man with an accent as thick as his bechamel. He modeled the program after the Padua Prison program in his native country, and funded it largely from his own pocket, buying bags of groceries and pots and pans. He estimates he's spent about $25,000 on it and an earlier incarnation at a juvenile detention center. In January, Abate got some big help — a $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The program has had some other generous donors in its two years at the Cook County Jail, but the MacArthur grant is expected to have a big impact on the program's trajectory.

About 80 inmates have participated so far, each after writing an essay and undergoing an interview with Abate. The program helps about a dozen at a time, who rotate in and out as members are released from jail and others are accepted. Some have gone to work at Tocco, while Abate keeps tabs on others via Facebook. The inmates gather three times a week in a former officer dining room in the basement of a medium security corrections building.Abate's group has turned part of an adjoining kitchen into a pizza preparation area, where they make dough on Mondays and cook the pizzas on Tuesdays in a massive pizza oven donated by a benefactor. In addition to pizzas, the inmates prepare dishes like fresh pasta and roast lamb, and share a group meal after the cooking is done — a respite from standard options and unhealthy fare like potato chips and packaged doughnuts that can be purchased at the commissary. Donations recently brought in a commercial freezer and refrigerator. An espresso and cappuccino machine is also on the way. Abate believes showing the students how to make coffee drinks will make them even more employable at places like Starbucks.

Once a week, a nutritionist comes in, teaching the students how to read labels, make healthy food choices and prepare dishes like turkey burgers. It feels far from a prison. There are reminders, though. Like when Abate picks up a knife to slice fresh-rolled lasagna noodles before he begins instruction on how to layer the dish. "Go over there, that side, not behind me," he says, gesturing to the other side of the prep table, as the inmates shift quickly and without argument. The chef's knife itself is connected to the table with a wire rope. Abate is a preacher on the power of food. He climbed on his pulpit in a recent class when a philanthropic organization came into the kitchen for a tour. "Babies, when they're born, they need love, they need food," he said, gesturing to his students. "(The inmates), they don't have love and they have bad food." Participants in the program, most of whom have pending court dates, say they're grateful for the opportunity to learn how to cook as well as the respite from the everyday monotony of jail. Kevin Capozzi is one beneficiary of the program whom Abate has taken under his wing on the outside. Abate hired him as a prep cook in late January, after Capozzi's stint in Cook County jail, charged with auto theft. Capozzi lives with his father in River Grove and commutes to the restaurant daily by bus. He earns minimum wage making salads, preparing dishes like calamari and cleaning up. He admits it's been tough to adjust, both to the outside world and Abate's expectations. Sometimes he struggles to get to work on time, and doesn't always welcome Abate's lectures on life. "It's a struggle, that's for sure. But when you have an opportunity like this, you have to take it," he said. Abate's charm can be contagious, but he doesn't coddle. Back at the jail, when the plates aren't set out to hold the warm ricotta cake for dessert, Abate's fuse lights. "What's the matter with you guys today?" he says in frustration, before quickly settling back into teacher mode when the slices are cut. For the most part, though, there seems to be an understanding in this place, and the inmates accept Abate's sometimes-tough demeanor. The inmates are eager learners, repeating recipes for pizza dough and fresh pasta by heart and sharing their favorite dishes. "The purpose is not to find a five-star chef," Abate said. "The purpose is to give people self-esteem. If you treat someone like garbage, he is going to act like garbage." Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he's amazed by the change he's seen in some of the participants. "It really blows me away," Dart said. "But Bruno is really obsessed with telling them things like that and talking about things on that level. You see them in those white chef coats — they physically look different, and mentally, they are different too." It's too early to tell whether the program will make the inmates less likely to become repeat offenders. The recidivism rate for all types of offenders nationwide is higher than 50 percent. There are big plans for the future: There's a documentary about the program in progress and a cookbook in the planning stages. A food truck may also start delivering the inmates' fresh-made pizzas to the lunch crowd at the Daley Center as early as this summer. Plans to expand the program to maximum security inmates are under review, Dart said. "So much of what I'm trying to do is put (inmates) in position to change people's attitudes," he said. The program has changed the prisoners' attitudes about themselves, too. "In a way, it's beautiful," Abate says of how the prisoners blossom in the program. "At the beginning they're like a little baby, learning what rosemary is, smelling it for the first time. For them it is a whole new world."

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