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Well Served

Well Served

A unique program in a Chicago-area detention facility aims to bring purpose and meaning to incarceration, teaching foodservice skills and readying inmates to join an industry that grapples with finding enough workers to fill shifts.

Ryan See, partner in The Kennison, The J. Parker and Compass Bar in Chicago, is no different from thousands of operators forced to cope with a crippling labor shortage, filling open positions with an ever-dwindling pool of candidates. “Where do you go?” he laments. “It’s nearly impossible to find help.”

What separates See from others looking for the next hire is his willingness to employ those whose resumes include a stint in county jail. Within the past year, he has brought onboard four men who were detained for various non-violent criminal offenses. In doing so, he pretty much has beaten the odds for hiring success and become a vigorous advocate for the practice.

“Two have been great, one was good but didn’t work out because of schedule conflicts and one was a bit of a disaster in terms of work ethic,” he says.

The four hires didn’t simply show up at the back door looking for work, but were readied and referred by Recipe for Change (RFC), a Chicago-based organization that teaches eight-week culinary classes in Cook County Jail. Founded by Bruno Abate, owner of Chicago’s Tocco restaurant and in this location since 2014, RFC has seen hundreds of men complete the program while incarcerated and awaiting trial. (A similar program for women was scheduled to launch at press time.)

They’re carefully vetted by the county before being selected to participate, with a violent past, predatory behavior or gang affiliation among circumstances that immediately disqualify. On completion, they not only have basic kitchen and culinary skills, but also ServSafe® certification, a strong asset should they decide to seek restaurant work. Most likely, they also have a stronger sense of community, responsibility, teamwork, discipline and self-respect. Those who are detained beyond eight weeks can take another block of classes, a pizza-making tutorial.

Though cobbled together on a slim budget, the facilities are surprisingly cheerful; in fact, a guard who ushered a visitor described the kitchens as the happiest place in the vast compound housing 1,500 detainees. It’s spotlessly clean, thanks to participants’ efforts. The equipment, including a wood-burning oven, range, steam convection
oven and cappuccino maker, is all restaurant quality.

Walls are decorated with art provided by RFC’s art program (it also boasts a music program) as well as motivational quotes, including “Great Food Changes Your Life,” and a few tufts of green plants. Only two knives, locked and tethered to work tables with steel cords, are allowed in the classroom and a guard stands sentry in each room where classes are held. Throughout the program’s tenure, there have been no incidents or fights.

“We hope they can see an alternative to whatever got them here, restore some dignity and build confidence through skills, so they have opportunities outside of here,” says Bridget Theis, administrative program coordinator for RFC.

Groups of 18 participants, who attend classes from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. five days a week, wear chef jackets and white caps. Whether listening to lectures or preparing food, they appear to be energetic, engaged and interested.

Abate has already oriented them to expectations. “No leaning on counters, no slouching postures or street attitude,” he explains. “They’re here to learn skills and self-esteem to take to the real world. They change inside and decide what they want to do with that.” When asked, all but one in a recent group said they would seek work in the industry upon release; the remaining one expressed desire to attend culinary school.

For his part, See is more than enthused with the outcomes. “One of the workers is the poster child for the RFC program. He’s a great employee and you can see in his eyes that he wants to do this,” he says, adding that he’s already been promoted.

“We hope they can see an alternative to whatever got them here, restore some dignity and build confidence through skills, so they have opportunities outside of here.”
- Bridget Theis

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