A documentary filmmaker spent a year in San Quentin filming a cooking program as it progressed. He found that learning high-end culinary arts changed the way incarcerated people see the world.
“The guys really talk about the pride of cooking for the other guys,” said filmmaker Santhosh Daniel, “When you cook for someone else and put your soul into it, it changes you from thinking about yourself to thinking about the people around you. The word is love.”
The six men who completed the 12-week course on May 22 will use their new skills to obtain employment upon their release from prison.
Warden Ron Davis addressed the crowd at their graduation.
“I get to see a lot of things here at San Quentin and this is one of the things we’re re- ally proud of,” Davis said. To the graduates, he said, “Believe in yourself.”
The incarcerated cooks prepared a four-course gourmet meal for guests from the Bay Area Culinary community.
The appetizer was grilled shrimp with a fennel and Meyer lemon aioli.
Next up: toast covered with asparagus, ricotta, mush- rooms, fava beans, and peas.
The main course was braised short ribs with a side of cauliflower, almonds, snap peas, and Calabrian chilies.
To finish it off: a banana pudding tart with strawberries and pecans.
“Everything is so delicious,” said Dipti Ghosh, whose favorite dish was the toast and asparagus. “You don’t get something this complex in a restaurant. There are so many different flavors and textures.”
Helaine Helnitzer, a Quentin Cooks co-founder, addressed the graduating men and the guests, saying how proud of the graduates she was. Helnitzer read a letter from Daniel Martinez, a for- mer classmate of the graduates.
Martinez wrote, emotionally, that he wanted to attend the graduation dinner but was unable because he’d paroled a few days earlier. Helnitzer joked about the irony that someone released from prison wants to come back in.
“We aim to be much more than a get-out-of-prison program,” said Helnitzer, who owns a wholesale bakery in San Francisco and is involved with several other rehabilitation programs at San Quentin, “We aim to be a stay-out- of-prison program.”
Three former graduates of the program returned to inspire the incarcerated men with some words of advice.
“Take a look around. All these people are here for you. It’s hard out there, but I know one thing. All of you can make it out there,” said returning Quentin Cooks graduate Joel McCarter. “This graduation is just the first step.”
Chef Huw Thornton and Chef Adelaar Rogers taught the course. They not only taught the incarcerated men skills in the kitchen, but also skills for life.
During an earlier class session, the incarcerated men practiced their knife skills with onions. If the onion is cut against the grain, the onion slices stay together, which is called Parisian. If the onion is cut with the grain, the onion slices fall apart, which is called julienne.
“One rule about kitchen work—first things first—second things second,” Chef Huw said. “Slice through the onions first, then chop the pile.”
The graduates practiced preparing, cooking, and plating dishes from scratch using ingredients and cooking equipment donated by program sponsors The Chef’s Warehouse and VegiWorks, Inc. Cofounder Lisa Dombroski encouraged her employer, The Chef’s Ware- house, to donate all the dry goods and equipment for the program, while VegiWorks donated all of the produce and meat.
The six graduates of Quentin Cooks Class 5 were Alvis Taylor, Derry Brown, Phillip Sims, Ronnie Simmons, Kerry Rudd, and Daniel Martinez.
“Most people would look in a fridge and see nothing. Now I see a meal,” said graduate Phil Sims, “This food right here gives you a taste of freedom!”
Aaron Tillis, Quentin Cooks teaching assistant, said, “Hold on to everything you learned in this class and keep your mind open to learning new things. The world is full of possibilities.”