California’s San Quentin State Prison is notorious for housing famous killers as well as the only death row in the state. It’s also home to an inspiring annual program called Quentin Cooks that teaches inmates how to chef it up guiding them towards a state food handling license that would certify them to work in food service upon release.
Just as San Quentin’s Prison University Project is the largest college-level education program in the state, Quentin Cooks offers real-life skills that people can walk away from prison with. Most formerly incarcerated people struggle to find economic stability — and education and skill building programs reduce recidivism, illustrating the importance of classes like this and at Cook County Jail.
Oxygen spoke with Quentin Cooks founders Lisa Dombroski and Helaine Melnitzer to talk about the creation of the program. Dombroski is a chef and sales rep for food and restaurant supply distributor Chefs’ Warehouse, which helps sponsor the program, while Melnitzer is an executive advisor for TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) at San Quentin.
OXYGEN: How do people get selected for Quentin Cooks?
Helaine Melnitzer: There are 500 people in this one area called H Unit. We were told that that's where the warden wanted us to do our kitchen because these men have what’s called determinate sentencing... men that have up to eight years, but they know they’re going home. They don't go to the parole board, they don't have all of these incentives that the other men have that will shorten their sentence.
It was a little bit of a struggle because of the fact that the men didn't have to do anything, they weren’t inclined to think about their future — they were just going to get out. But we kind of keep it at 10 to 11. Or 10 new students with a couple teaching assistants, men who have been in the program before. And I interview them and I just try to discern as best I can men who are serious.
(Note: This year’s course was rescheduled for the summer because of a six-week lockdown at the prison.)
What kind of dishes do students learn to make?
Lisa Dombroski: Our first class was super into Asian stuff and wanted to do stir fry, teriyaki chicken, sweet and sour chicken. We had another class that was really into seafood. You know, crab everything! Doesn’t matter what season it is, we want crab! This last class, we only made two things, but it was heavily Latino flavors. They wanted burritos, they wanted beans, we were going to do mole.
In working with Lainy [Helaine] we are able to modify [the menu]. Each class is different because every group of men has its own identity — and we learn about these identities every time. We wrote a loose curriculum — like, these are objectives we want them to gain, these are techniques we want them to learn. I don’t know of a kitchen where you go in and you have everything strategized and it works out the right way the first time. You do a lot of shooting from the hip and that's just like in real life.
Have you had luck placing students in restaurant jobs?
LD: I don't know entirely how Lainy does it but she has managed to place a number of our men in Sacramento. She was working super diligently on someone in Bakersfield. We have a couple people, one employed at [Oakland’s] Homeroom and one who was interviewing.
What have you learned from hosting Quentin Cooks?
LD: These men teach us more than we could ever teach them. And it's about everything. It's about decisions that you make, it's about staying calm, it’s about finding solutions and a different way to go about things.
HM: When you’re with them a lot, you see that all of us are much more than the mistakes we make and we’re certainly more than some of our worst actions. And a lot of these guys have come from communities where they have never had one person hold out a hand to say, “Come on up, let me help you.” And it’s huge, the first time our groups put on their aprons that say Quentin Cooks, it’s transformative. You see it on their faces. They feel like they’re no longer wearing their prison blues and they’re hopeful. One guy even made a comment at one of our dinners: “Thank you for treating us as humans.” And we see it all the time.
[Photos by Tablehopper.com]