That’s precisely how the story goes at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, where incarcerated men are unlocking a lot more than culinary skills via the facility’s food service technology program.
“Some guys, just to look at their faces when they prepare a cake, or some cookies, it’s like they hit the lottery,” said Chef Jimmy Lee Hill, who is in his 29th year as executive chef of the culinary program. “Because of that smile. It’s like, ‘You know, chef? Man, I didn’t think I could do this.’”
“And sometimes I joke around with them and I’m like, ‘Man, if those drive-by shooters could see you now. You traded in that Glock 9 for a whisk!’ I try to have fun with them because it’s already tense enough in there.”
Peace Inside the Chaos
Chef Hill was a panelist during Roots Cultivate 2018 to discuss recruiting talent in an infertile environment. For Chef Hill, finding talent isn’t difficult. “I don’t have the unemployment issue. The circuit court takes care of that,” he joked. “Mine are there until they’re done.” He said the real challenge is training inmates, teaching them the skills they’ll need to find successful and productive work in kitchens outside prison walls so that they can be the talent other chefs are searching for.
“My program − I try to run it like prison away from prison. When they come to the classroom it’s set up to where you can sit back, and, you know, we got jazz on in the background. And a lot of them say ‘Chef, when you don’t come to class, we hate it because we got to stay in the dorm. We don’t get that inner peace thing that you get in the classroom.’ So that’s why I try to make it that way. So, they can get some peace in all that chaos.”
They also learn the practical basics, like what to wear for an interview. “I tell them, pull your pants up. Nobody wants to see your underwear.”
Chef John Zender Lends A Hand
Periodically, visiting professional chefs visit the prison to share their own experiences and advice on how to navigate the “real” culinary world after prison. Chef John Zehnder, of Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth, is a regular participant in the discussions.
“I go as often as I can. I love talking to that crowd,” Chef Zehnder said. “They want to know what it’s like. Will they be able to find a job? And I say yes!”
Chef Zehnder said he has employed a number of men he calls “short timers” who were imprisoned for minor offenses. “They honestly need a second chance. You have to help these guys out,” he said. “When you talk to the inmates, they fully admit they’ve made wrong decisions. But they sincerely want to change their lives around. Jimmy has given them the tools to do it. He’s an inspiration to that program,” Chef Zehnder said. “They have a passion, and that passion comes from Jimmy.”
Chef Zehnder said finding good, reliable talent isn’t always easy. “We can’t find enough employees to fill the staff positions,” he said. But graduates of programs like Lakeland’s can be a rich resource of well-rounded, well−trained, knowledgeable chefs.
“Jimmy also teaches theory – why do you add the ingredient? It’s a real culinary education that they’re getting in that program. They want to learn,” he said. “I’d rather have 15 or 20 inmates than high school or college students. Because they all pay attention.”
They also have something many other job applicants don’t – excellent knife skills. “I always judge a young chef by saying ‘Show me your knife skills.’ To me the true mark of a chef is knife skills,” Chef Zehnder said.
From Inner City to Inner Sanctum
Chef Hill said the population at Lakeland comes mostly from the inner city, where food shopping is often limited. “They don’t have grocery stores,” he said. “They have those corner stores that might have a few oranges or something.”
It’s a reason wide-eyed wonder over simple things, like where French fries really come from, is one of Chef Hill’s particular pleasures. It’s also the reason for a backyard garden that supplies some of the kitchen’s fresh produce.
“Some of them have never seen potatoes before on the plant,” he said. “One day we were pulling potatoes and I pulled a plant up and all these russets they were hanging down, and [an inmate] said ‘What’s that?’ And I said ‘That’s gonna be your French fries today.’ He said, ‘The potatoes?’ And I said ‘Yeah!’ And he said ‘Man, I thought they came from the grocery store!’”
A surprise package of The Chef’s Garden’s cucamelons was a particularly unique teaching moment recently. “They said ‘Chef, why don’t we ever grow these little baby watermelons?’ And I was like, ‘that’s not a watermelon.’ They ask a lot of questions, which is good.”
Make no mistake, these students go way beyond basic. They prepare cuisine that is as refined, delicious and elegant as food in any high-end restaurant. They’re paid 59 cents a day to do it, and a gourmet meal goes for $5.
“The reason why I do that is, they need to know how to make stuff like that so, when they get out, they can get a good job,” Chef Hill said. “I can teach them hamburgers and French fries. And we do have burgers and fries. But they need to know fine dining to represent what they’ve learned.”
Chef Hill’s class serves a gourmet meal every second and fourth Thursday of the month to prison employees, visitors, and any inmates adventurous enough to try avant garde cuisine.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said Chef Zehnder. “And they not only prepare the food, they serve. They have a sommelier.” (Wine, of course, is not on the menu. So, the sommelier explains the finer points of sparkling juice varieties instead.”)
Besides learning certain practical skills, Chef Hill said the opportunity to wait on customers helps students discover the satisfaction and joy of serving others instead of taking from them.
“I think that’s one of the most intimate things you can for a person is to feed them,” he said. “In my class, I teach them how to treat people. Because along with your job you’ve got to know how to talk to people and you want to treat them right and fair.”
Help Where It’s Needed
Chef Zehnder told the story of inviting a dentist friend (a real “foodie”) to accompany him to Lakeland to experience a meal. During a conversation with the pastry chef, the man learned that the corrections department considers chocolate a luxury item, so they would not supply any for the kitchen.”
“And he said, ‘I’m a pastry chef. How am I supposed to do my job without chocolate?’” Zehnder said. On the drive back to Frankenmuth, the dentist was uncharacteristically quiet.
“After about 20 minutes of dead silence he said ‘We’ve gotta buy the man some chocolate.’ So, we sent him $400 worth of chocolate. And he sent us photos of the desserts he made.” On another occasion, Chef Zehnder gifted the program with 50 cookbooks penned by professional chefs. “It’s important that they see the people on the outside care,” he said.
Clearly Chef Hill’s role at the helm of Lakeland’s Food Service Technology goes beyond teaching his students how to Julienne, puree and plate. “I wear a lot of hats there. From banking information, to father, uncle, pastor, entertainment. You know, just everything.”
He said roughly 700 inmates over 29 years have completed the culinary program at Lakeland. But not all students make it through. A few can’t resist the lure and negative peer pressure of prison culture.
“Some get lost in the cracks, but for the most part they don’t want to have nothing to do with that. They want to get out of there and be a good person. And that’s what we want.”