Tasty graduation for the first class of SQ chefs

By Wayne Boatwright

The inaugural graduating class of “The Quentin Cooks” prepared a five-course feast as a worthy finish to the new Culinary Arts Program, a 12-week course on basic culinary knowledge and skills. The course provides practical training from instructors with real-world experience and the chance to earn a ServSafe certification, which is required to work in a California restaurant.

Gourmet food prepared by the students

About two dozen guests were invited to tour a modern restaurant kitchen in the H-Unit mess hall and witness an intricate dance of uniformed cooks, knives and flame on Oct. 10 beginning with “Breadstick with 55° Silver Salmon & Deviled Egg” garnished with baby arugula.

Overseen by Chef Lisa Dombroski and Chef Eric Hollis with the aid of Chef Tu David Phu, the crew next served the creation “Quentin Cobb Salad” (little gem lettuce, avocado, scallion and cherry tomato with creamy herb dressing and garnished with Parmigiano Reggiano).

Attendees included Warden Ron Davis, Jill Brown (SQ Warden in 2004-5), sponsors and potential employers of these job-ready graduates. 

Chef Lisa acknowledged the graduating class. “You studied even when not asked to…I respect each one of you,” she said. The program plans to increase from 10 students to 15 for the next group beginning in January. 

Quentin Cooks serving up a tasty meal

“Chef Eric gives us a hard time, but it’s worth it,” said Joel McCarter a graduate who has been in prison nine years and will go home in March 2017. A wait-list already exists for the next class, which seeks participants with an Earliest Possible Release Date (EPRD) between six months and three years. 

Brown said, “It’s wonderful to see how the San Quentin community continues to grow and make events and development like this possible.” While retired from the CDCR, Brown now consults with various groups to implement more programs like this one throughout the CDCR.

The graduates not only prepared and served the meal, but were also invited to sit and share their stories with the visitors as they enjoyed the “Shellfish Duo” (Java lump crab cake, shrimp, and remoulade).

This was an effort supported by the whole San Quentin community. Speaking of Officer Thompson, an H-Unit mess hall officer, “He really made this program happen….he makes the kitchen work,” said James “New York” Seegars. Seegars will parole to San Francisco late this year and already has two job interviews set up by Helaine “Lanie” Melniter, a San Quentin Trust officer and co-sponsor of the program.

This new program is made possible by a partnership between the CDCR and The Chefs’ Warehouse, a nationwide distributor of gourmet food and restaurant supplies. With a main course of “Allen Brothers Angus” (with scalloped potatoes and seared late-summer vegetables) all the participants appreciated how the company earned the motto “Where the Chefs Shop.”

“Like Chef Lisa always says, ‘there is no place to hide in the kitchen,’” said Sunshine “Sunny” Prado, who has been in prison for 14 years and goes home in early 2017, as he accepted his certificate and complimented the chefs on the training.

While a dessert of “Quentin Biscuits and Berries,” with fresh whipped cream and garnished with a mint leaf, may sound like the crowning achievement of the night, each of the Quentin Cooks earned a California ServSafe certification.

As with the three chefs running the program, the certification training and testing was provided by a volunteer, Mike Sabells, of FoodSafetyCertified.org.

Successful participants also receive a Chef’s Knife Set and assistance with job placement upon completion and parole.


  • michael hart

    As a semi-retired ‘gourmet’ restaurant chef I have often thought about doing this exact same thing. Can you please tell me how to get in touch with Lisa Dombrowski, or whoever is still running the program, as I’d like to talk to them and possibly lend a hand,


  • Lisa

    A friend passed on that there was an inquiry on this page. I didn’t even see the online article. I apologize. We aRe getting to start our third session! Please email sanquentincooks@gmail.com
    And myself and Lainy will follow up
    Thank you!


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