Thirty California prison wardens joined in a rare standing ovation for an extraordinary banquet prepared by inmates of the Quentin Cooks program.
“I’ve never felt so proud,” one student said.
The third graduating class, supported by graduates of the second class of the Quentin Cooks, earned this honor for catering a July 18 Wardens’ Conference luncheon with the wardens and Ralph Diaz, Undersecretary, Operations, and Kathleen Allison, Division of Adult Institutions Director of CDCR.
“Quentin Cooks is unique as it extends past the gate. This is real-world training, and all graduates get help with job placement upon completion and parole,” said Helaine Melnitzer, a co-founder of the program with Chef Lisa Dombroski.
The volunteer-driven program teaches culinary skills and practical restaurant training from instructors with real-world experience. Graduates also earn a ServSafe certification, making them “job-ready” to work for any California restaurant. H-Unit residents with an Earliest Possible Release Date (EPRD) of 6 to 36 months can take this training.
“The cooking was exact, with painstaking preparation and flavors that resonate”
“We played rugby with each other and Lisa told me about the program and asked me to design a logo for the program,” said Jen Humphries. The logo designer came with her husband.
“The cooking was exact, with painstaking preparation and flavors that resonate,” said one guest.
In order to introduce themselves to the guests, the graduates served the following meal they prepared:
Amuse: Duck Bahn Mi (with carrot and radish garnished with cilantro on a sourdough baguette round)
The men rolled out the dish on bamboo plates. Carrying plates and wearing aprons, they served the dish to all the guests within minutes.
Spring Rolls: Filled with shrimp, peanut, pickles
The room went quiet as the spring rolls were served and everyone was enjoying the fresh rice-paper wrap stuffed with herbs, noodles and shrimp with peanut sauce.
Autumn Soup: Celery root, chestnut, apple
The broth was embellished with a garnish of green herbs.
Meat and potatoes: Allen Brothers Angus, pommes, cabbage, truffle
The presentation of the main course included a bed of mashed potatoes and braised and roasted Napa cabbage to add a crunch to the Angus.
Sweets: Nutella, berries, Chantilly
“Thank you for treating us as humans,” Jessie James Smith, a former graduate, told Melnitzer.
“We have come to understand the impact of institutionalization and how our modest program can contribute toward a positive transformation,” said Melnitzer.
With the support of fellow chef Huw Thornton, chef Lisa would come early every Monday morning and begin with a chef’s brief of the daily goals, count the weekly orders, check inventory against invoices and selecting teams to mimic a restaurant environment.
Chef Huw said all the demands of a high-energy workplace are modeled in the classes “where understanding the palate is essential, presentation a necessity and food safety a must.”
Chef Lisa’s employer, The Chefs Warehouse and VegiWorks Inc. provided the produce.
While most of the guests worked in the hospitality industry or managed their own restaurants, chef Lisa’s parents, aunt, sister and best friend all came from as far away as New York and North Carolina to attend the graduation.
“While her passion for the business came in her 20s, Lisa has always been there for people and willing to help,” chimed in both parents.
James “New York” Seegars from the first graduating class was welcomed back to San Quentin to tell his story of transformation from inmate to employee after serving 29 years.
“Applying what I learned in this class I’ve been working for six months (at Brodericks in Sacramento). You only get raises based on performance. I’ve had three already,” Seegars said.
He has arranged jobs for five ex-felons at his workplace including Mike Tapia, another Quentin Cooks graduate, according to Melnitzer.
Gume Cervantes has been incarcerated for 10 years. He earned his GED at Pelican Bay, but it is Quentin Cooks that has prepared him to return to the world ready to work.
“QC [Quentin Cooks] is a great program that can really change your life. While my family had a small restaurant, QC really teaches the basics on how to cook healthy and safely,” said Cervantes.
While you certainly learn to cook different styles of food, and for large groups, the most important thing Cervantes learned was to work as a team with all kinds of people, not just Latinos.
“Chef Lisa understands not just cooking, but business and how to manage a team. She really motivates me to learn something new, and I can use it on the street in a new job,” added Cervantes.
He said that his biggest challenge in the class is that “my English is not that good; my team helps me and Lisa makes sure that I can understand – she would help me with new words and I’d practice 20-30 times that same day. Es un sueño para mi.”