Moving America Forward

Cooking Up Change at an Illinois Prison

May 15, 2014
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Cooking Up Change at an Illinois Prison
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
In Cook County, inmates find deeper meaning in chopping, sautéing, and kneading.

Teach a man to fish, and he’ll never go hungry, the old saying goes. And while it’s hard to fish while incarcerated, organizers of a new program at the Cook County Jail, hope the same general philosophy holds true for teaching a man to cook.

A 90-day pilot program, which requires three hours each day, aims to teach inmates employable kitchen skills, DNAinfo Chicago reports. The added bonus? Work ethic and food lessons that can be used throughout the participants’ lives.

This jailhouse prison kitchen remains a far cry from a chef’s prep station, however. Knives are tied down; there’s not a soufflé in sight. But inmates find the lessons revelatory. (For some of the men, the first class marked their first whiff ever of fresh basil!) Some say the basement cookery stands as their first practical job skill education. They’re not only learning nutrition facts (think: olive oil instead of a fast-food fry-up), but how to employ all of their senses as they see, touch, smell, and taste.

“In three months, I can’t do miracles,” chef and teacher Bruno Abate told DNAinfo Chicago. “My mission is to transfer to them the love of food.”

Lieutenant. D. Delitz, who oversees the program, chose 24 participants out of a pool of 70 applicants.

Cook County hosts a broad range of programs for inmates, including seminars on parenting for men who had few, if any, male role models in their lives, reports WTTW. Organizers of the so-called Alpha Parenting Course (which is getting quite a bit of attention), say they believe theirs is the first such prison-based parenting counseling sessions in the nation (a similar one was discovered on the other side of the world, in New Zealand).

“These guys are definitely street smart but something like being a father has never been passed down,” Ebenezer Amalraj, a volunteer, told WTTW. “We want them to take our lessons, pass it on and have an influence on their legacy. We want them to make a difference and break the cycle.”

No word on whether inmates overlap between cooking and parenting. But now there’s hope that as they emerge from their sentences, maybe they’ll be able to make a better life for themselves — and their families.

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