A Chicago Chef Is Rehabilitating Inmates One Pizza at a Time

If you pick up a knife Bruno Abate’s kitchen, you’ll notice that it’s chained to the counter. That is because this culinary school operates in the basement of Division 11 of Cook County Jail in Chicago.

by Sarah Freeman
Apr 19 2017, 6:00pm

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.


"Yes, Chef," a white coat-wearing student says to 62-year-old Bruno Abate when he asks if the water is boiling. He's posed this question to the room rather than one person in particular. The water is indeed ready for fresh pasta, while milk— destined to become fresh ricotta—comes to a boil in another pot. Meanwhile, a mirepoix slowly softens in a Dutch oven.

Abate's kitchen operates like a well-oiled machine: Gelato churns in the soft-serve machine while the pizza oven spits out bubbly pies in a matter of minutes. But pick up a knife and you'll notice it's chained to the counter. Open a couple aluminum cans and expect the lids to be counted and removed. Look just below the hem of each student's white chef coat and notice the letters "DOC" printed on the beige pant leg. That is because this culinary school operates in the basement of Division 11 of Cook County Jail in Chicago.

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All photos by Nick Murway.

"You touched the bottom," Abate says, addressing his class of 12 inmates. "You can only go up." And maybe it is rock bottom for the men currently enrolled in the two-year-old Recipe for Change program, but that doesn't mean their journey back up will be an easy one. A non-violent crime—drug possession or trafficking, theft, DUI, etc.—landed them behind bars at the largest facility of its kind in the United States, housing 9,000 men and women awaiting trial. A letter to Abate—as well as good hygiene and good behavior—earned them a coveted spot here. In order to keep it, that good behavior must continue. One participant recently lost his after stealing a cookbook, because he wanted to familiarize himself with a recipe. Another letter of apology might earn him readmission.

Below an old menu board of the "Getaway Café," students meet five times a week. The operation runs like any basic culinary program. Classes are taught on food safety and sanitation, followed by skills and techniques. Each day has a set menu—always pizza, usually also pasta, as well as a soup or side and dessert. Students are given tasks, whether it is smashing bulbs of garlic, simmering stock, or kneading dough. Those who have been in the program longer take the new students under their wing (the program recently lost its best pizza dough maker, so others are being groomed to take his place). No one, not even Abate, knows how long each student's education will last. All it takes is a court date to send them down to Statesville or issue their release.

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Before gathering round a stainless steel table affixed with a pasta machine, Abate reminds his students why they are here. It's not to cook—even though the Naples, Italy native, who towers over everyone at an intimidating six-foot-five with an equally imposing accent, is more than qualified to give even the most seasoned chef a schooling in red sauce. They are here to change and convince fellow inmates, who were not admitted to the program, that they are capable of the same.

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"Cooking plays into breaking the bad habits," says Alex, an inmate who has been involved with the Recipe for Change program for the past two months. "Take properly holding a knife. A lot of us have cooked something at home and we have improper techniques for holding it, so Chef will correct us. We realize that little things like that are hard to break, let alone some of the negative things that got us here."

The majority of the US prison system emphasizes punishment via isolation over rehabilitation. Recipe for Change and similar programs, including the Cook County Sherriff's garden that operates across the street and provides the kitchen with ingredients, take a more proactive approach. "In the cell, people are depressed, people are sad," says Javier, an inmate who has been enrolled in the program for one month. "We come down here and we help out. We do all this and it distracts us from our pain."

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Half of the inmates finish flouring the counter and remove plastic wrap from rounds of pasta dough. One forms each ball into an oblong sheet, while another mans the hand-crank on the pasta maker. Abate helps feed the dough to ensure proper thickness and make sure the edges don't tear. Others are cooking pizza in an adjacent room with rows of tables and a custom ceramic oven adorned with the words "Recipe for Change" in green and white tiles. The latter, as well as the pantry full of imported 00 flour, olive oil, and canned tomatoes, exist because of charitable donations as well as a recent $50,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The charity component of Recipe for Change also feeds into the second part of the program: job placement for its graduates. "The change is when I hear from somebody when they get out," Abate says. "They call me and say, 'Hey, Chef—I'm out and I want to work.' This is what makes me proud." He got one of those calls three months ago from a recently released inmate who was part of his first group of Cook County Jail students.

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Alvin Wright is a 53-year-old South Side Chicagoan who was in and out of the prison system for more than 30 years. That is, until one day, a guard stepped onto the communal deck of the block of Cook County Jail where he was being held and asked inmates if anyone wanted to sign up for a class in the culinary arts. Wright was the first volunteer, seeing it as an alternative to solitude.

"Being able to take flour, eggs, and water to make pasta; to bake bread; to be able to cook; how to use a knife properly—it was the opportunity to learn things that I can keep, that nobody can take away from me," Wright says. He spent a year with the program, priding himself on always keeping the kitchen clean. He was then sentenced to serve two years in prison. Upon his release, he returned to the South Side, where he almost slipped back into his old ways. "If it wasn't for the program, most likely, I would be right back where most of my friends are—back on the street, trying to sell drugs, committing crime just to survive."

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Abate gave Wright a job as a dishwasher at his contemporary Italian restaurant Tocco in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Wright's schedule is set according to the bus schedule, so he can spend as little time as possible walking the streets of his neighborhood. "I've been here for three months and I'm going to be here until the roof falls in," Wright says. In that time, Wright has opened his first bank account, found stable housing and a relationship. He is about to get married—after which Abate says he will throw him a huge party in the restaurant—and is saving money to buy a car as well as pay for his grandson's college education.

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Back in the basement of Cook County Jail, lunch is served for Abate and the officer overseeing the inmates. White tablecloths, plastic plates, and disposable utentils are laid out over linoleum tables. First course is pasta e fagiole with al dente noodles swimming in the bean-based broth. Next, tender yet crispy pizza is covered in charred bubbles and spots of cheese. It's to-the-letter delicious. A plate of fresh ricotta drizzled with honey comes last. The dish belongs on a tasting menu instead of a jail, yet here we are. The plan is that the food prepared by Recipe for Change will eventually feed the 1,500 inmates housed in Division 11. Until then, it's bologna sandwiches. Plans are also in the works to open a second facility outside the jail where past participants can continue their culinary education and successfully transition back into society.

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The transition doesn't come easily, with redivision a common plague for many of Recipe for Change's graduates. In the program's two-year history, Abate has already received letters from men who find themselves back in the system. The regularity of the occurrence doesn't make it any less upsetting for the chef, who would rather never see his students return to the Cook County Jail kitchen. Even those who do successfully serve their time and re-enter society are haunted by their past life and mistakes. "Sometimes, I'm scared," Weight says. "Because it seems like I'm succeeding and I'm not used to succeeding."