This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Picture the worst meal at a cafeteria – soggy, tasteless salad with leaves that glue themselves to the roof of your mouth, noodles that coagulate into a gigantic flavourless blob, dry chicken with distinct sawdust notes. Now imagine that's the only food you'll be able to eat today. Or worse: every day. For months, maybe even years to come. This can be the reality of food in prison. But you know what they say: when life doesn't give you lemons, you use lemon flavouring.
This is the case for Dany*, a prisoner currently incarcerated in northern France for what he refers to as a "fairly serious contraband issue." With a bit of creativity, Dany can make almost any dish in his makeshift cell kitchen: chocolate tarts, tagine, pizza – even roast chicken. He shares it all on his Instagram account, Dany Hellz Kitchen. The account has almost 18,000 followers, though Dany can't say how he keeps it updated from his prison cell.
Dany is happy to talk about his popularity, however. “I think what people like about it is that they can see what happens on the inside,” he says. “They also appreciate that I’m an optimistic guy; I never complain saying ‘I wanna get out, I’m fed up with the nick.' Things would have gone wrong for me on the outside, I was in a dark place. So I’m taking it easy: I exercise, I check social media and most of all, I make food."
On an early autumn evening, I give Dany a call to talk prison food, improvised ovens and what 'home cooking' means for people on the inside.
VICE: Hey Dany, did your passion for cooking start in prison?
Dany : No, I’ve always cooked. When I was a kid, I used to hang out in the kitchen all the time, asking my mum questions and trying to understand. She used to make a bit of everything – Moroccan, French, Italian. Even before going to prison, I often used to cook for friends and family. Same thing here: when I have a cellmate, I make him food.
Because prison food isn’t great...
It’s shit. I mean if I had to eat it, I would, but thankfully I have friends and family who love me very much and support me. They give me a bit of money each month, so I can buy food in the small prison market. When I’m out of cash, I still have something up my sleeve: I get the food from the canteen, I wash it, I season it again and re-invent it. I take the veggies, add some garlic, make a sauce and voilà.
How did you learn how to cook?
I’m kind of self-taught. I was living on my own on the outside and I didn’t really want to spend my money to eat like shit, so I preferred to make my own food. Marmiton [a popular French cooking site] helped me a lot, especially their YouTube videos. I recently made their chocolate tart recipe. The only technicality is that I don't have an oven, so I need to improvise.
What do you mean?
Well, I get a pot and I cover it with another pan turned upside-down. Then I put them on the induction stove. It works really well! I make everything with it: pizza, bread, tagine. I’ve even made a roast chicken.
And what do you do for the other kitchen utensils?
You can buy pots and pans at the prison market. But you only get knives with a rounded tip. There are people who smuggle in knives by throwing them over the wall or getting them through the visitor’s room. But it’s really dangerous to have those because you’ll immediately get at least a year added to your sentence. Personally, I would never take that risk.
Do you get your ingredients from the prison market?
Yes, we call it "the canteen". You have fresh produce sold by the kilo, religious products [e.g. halal food], processed meat, dairy, sweets. Some types of food are banned, like yeast for example, because you can make alcohol with that. You can really buy a lot of stuff, except for what the administration classifies as dangerous.
Can you give an example?
It all depends on the detention centre, but some kinds of spices are banned sometimes. For example, pepper is often off-limits because you can use it as a weapon. You could blow it in the eyes of a guard. I’ve had people bring in other spices through the visitor’s room when I was in remand, like paprika, cumin, ginger and more.
Is there something you particularly miss?
Some good beef. In the cafeteria, I can get my hands on some chicken sometimes, but I’m fed up with how dry it is. It’s been at least a year since I’ve had some decent meat, last time was when I was in remand. It’s a mess there. I was in a centre for 700 people with 1,400 inmates. So, it was way easier to get meat through the visitor centre. You could have brought in a whole sheep. Of course, you also have strip searches, but there is always a way to sort it out.
Which dishes are the “prison classics”?
The most popular dish in prison is my pasta with tomato sauce, like in the scene in Goodfellas when Paulie says to Vinnie: "Don’t put too many onions in the sauce." I take the tomatoes, I chop them up, add a little bit of tomato paste, a bit of garlic and some minced onions. You roast them well in the pan, then add tuna. For dessert, most prisoners only eat Sodexo stuff [the catering company that provides the cafeteria food]. It’s often rotten fruit. But at Sunday lunch, we get pastries – it's the same in all French prisons, it’s an institution. It often causes fights, though.
Like when you get extra fries at middle school?
Yeah. In fact, we get fries here, too, but they're steamed like everything by Sodexo – which makes food gross but healthy. So I take the fries from the cafeteria, I bring them to my cell and I fry them in sunflower oil. That always makes me think that the food bans here make no sense. We can’t get pepper, but oil is OK. And by the way, a guy did throw hot oil on someone once. Well, that's another three and a half years to your sentence.
Are you known as a good cook in prison now?
Yeah, of course. Some inmates bring me ingredients and ask me to make them a dish. Instead of going for a walk outside, sometimes I spend my afternoons preparing food for my friend in the next cell.
How many people do you think make their own food and how many eat prison food?
Unfortunately, most people just eat in the cafeteria. Prison often breaks families up, so some guys don’t have money to buy extra stuff. But even those who have cash sometimes prefer to buy drugs. Everybody smokes here, so they spend it on hash or coke or heroin and they get shit-faced. In my unit, you do have a few people who make their own food, though. It’s not like in remand where you have to stay in your cell 22 hours a day, here you can go out. We share dishes and recipes. Sometimes we celebrate birthdays, or throw a small party when someone gets out.
Why is food important in prison?
Because it allows you to stay healthy and feel good. In here, you also exercise a lot so you need to eat a lot. At the beginning [of my sentence], I was working out like a madman, so I ate a lot to gain muscle. I was a monster. Then I let go a bit. Now I just do bodyweight workouts one hour a day and only eat one meal in the evening, because I wake up late. Food is also a sign of your status in prison because those who have good food have money.
What’s your speciality?
Tiramisu, it’s my favourite dessert. There’s nothing better than tiramisu in the evening after a joint. The problem is that you usually need mascarpone, but we don’t have access to that here. So what I do is I take crème fraîche, I add four or five yoghurt pots, sugar, an egg yolk and some stiff-peak egg whites. I leave it for 24 hours in the fridge so it gets to the right consistency and then I use it as a substitute for mascarpone. For the biscuits, I use madeleines soaked in coffee.
And what about savoury food?
Tagine with prunes. It’s quite easy to make, but you need ras el-hanout [a Moroccan spice mix]. As we say here, without ras el-hanout you’re fucked. It’s an essential. Anyways, you add some cumin to the mix, then you roast some onions in the pan, you add your chicken and finally prunes and potatoes. For the appetiser, I usually make a simple green salad with a bit of corn and a Mediterranean dressing, with lemon, olive oil and a little bit of mustard.
Would you like to continue on this path and become a chef when you’re out?
I think I’m too lazy to work in a kitchen – I just want to eat well. I would like to go into the legal cannabis business. I’m developing a CBD-infused cooking oil that I call Ketama CBD Oil Company, an homage to the “Genco Pura Olive Oil” from The Godfather [a reference to the front company run by the Corleone family]. I bought CBD in bulk and also argan oil, olive oil and organic prickly pear oil. I infuse them with CBD, so you can use them for cooking. Otherwise, my other idea is to set up the first weed burger fast food joint in Luxembourg, because cannabis will be legalised there soon.