Graduation night for Quentin Cooks, a culinary class aimed at helping inmates succeed

Inmates at San Quentin State Prison were feeling the heat Wednesday evening- of getting a four-course meal prepared and served.

It was graduation night for Quentin Cooks, a culinary class- behind bars-  aimed at helping inmates  succeed outside prison walls. 

"We're going to thin that out with a little more olive oil but it looks beautiful," chef-instructor Huw Thornton told a student, who was whisking a sauce. Thornton volunteers his time and expertise to the program. 

"Good?" asked inmate Alvis Taylor, due for parole in nine months on a domestic violence conviction. 

"Great!" responded his mentor Thornton, after tasting the concoction. 

Taylor hopes to find work in a restaurant after his release. 

"You would never think that inside a prison you could make gourmet food like this, it's awesome," Taylor told KTVU. 

In the dining hall of H Block, dozens of invited guests were served shrimp with fennel and lemon, toast with ricotta and spring vegetables, and a main course of beef with cauliflower, almonds, and chiles. 

"Some people have never boiled water, and others have been cooking since they were little kids," said Quentin Cooks alumnus Aaron Tillis, assisting with the dinner preparation. 

The training lasts three months, and at the end of each weekly class, inmates eat what they have prepared. 

"Before I went to prison I was in a certain neighborhood and that was it," said fellow alum Jesse James Smith, returning to the lockup for the graduation dinner. 

"Prison is really segregated but in the kitchen, I worked with whites, Asians, Mexicans, everybody in the class and we all worked together." 

The idea was launched four years ago by a pair of volunteers with experience as chefs and food distributors.  

"Cooking is one of those experiences that opens the heart to talk freely," Quentin Cooks co-founder Helaine Helnitzer told KTVU, proudly watching the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. "This teaches them they can do this, and they can do other things too."

The unique program was unproven when it began. 

"At first I wondered if they just wanted to come in to have a good meal, but then I thought 'who cares?'", smiled Helnitzer," because once we have them we can turn them around."   

Planning and food preparation provide a sense of accomplishment many of the men hunger for.   

"I'll be able to hold my own in the kitchen with my wife," said new grad Art Ascheman, who will be freed on parole this summer and plans to steer clear of the drugs and weapons that landed him behind bars. 

"With cooking, everybody's got their own little job and it all comes together at the end, when everybody does their part," said Ascheman, "and I did learn that, teamwork."  

Those involved in the program say it's so absorbing, they sometimes forget they're in prison.

But guards are always nearby, razor wire is visible through the windows, and the kitchen knives are chained to the tables.  

"I had to sign up for this, have you ever tasted prison food? " joked past graduate Smith, eliciting laughter from the audience during a panel discussion. 

Smith and others, succeeding on parole, come to graduations to share their stories and encourage inmates still incarcerated and unsure of their futures.  

"If you want change, you've got to change," declared new graduate Ron Simmons, tending to a hot grill sizzling with shrimp. "You've got to want this and if you don't want it, zero, but if you do want it, the sky is the limit." 

Six graduates received a Food Handler Certificate, issued by Marin County, and required for working in a food-serving environment. 

Two others also graduated from the same class, but received their certificates early, as they were already paroled. 

The Quentin Cooks training costs taxpayers nothing, as the supplies and ingredients are all donated by two food distributors. 

Only inmates with exemplary behavior can get into the class, and there is always a wait list. 

Among those enjoying the meal, and sharing his gratitude, past graduate Joel McCarter, seated at a table with his employer, who owns Smoke Berkeley BBQ in Berkeley. 

"It's nice, it's fun," said McCarter, of working the register, preparing food, and serving customers 

McCarter was stunned at the trust placed in him after he served nine years for attempted robbery. 

"They believed in me enough to give me a second chance, and this program is the reason why," said McCarter. 

Smiling alongside him, restaurateur Tina Ferguson-Riffe.

"Not everyone is ready right away, some work a couple of jobs before they're ready, but Joel was ready and I knew it," said Ferguson-Riffe. 

San Quentin is California's oldest prison, dating to 1852 and has more than 80 rehabilitation programs for almost 4,000 medium security inmates.