Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hell's Kitchen Cooking School

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By Chris Dankovich

Okay, so maybe it's more like "Purgatory’s Kitchen." This used to be, after all, the prison that everyone wanted to get transferred to. It's not that the place is any less secure than other prisons in the state or that the conditions provided are any nicer. It's more of a cultural thing. Though far from the concept of a country club, Thumb Correctional Facility (or "The Thumb", as in the thumb region of the mitten state) is a place where you can go to the yard without a shank, go to the bathroom without needing a friend to watch your back, where you can have the confidence to leave your cell door cracked open with commissary on your desk even if you don't look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and aren't some top gang leader. The town it's in isn't a “prison town"…there's lots of other jobs, and the staff doesn't generally have that generations-long lack-of-other-options malevolence that others often have. Staff do their jobs, but don't put their thumbs down and squish unless given a reason to, and the prisoners (as a whole) avoid giving them reason.

So here in Purgatory, there are two trade classes available to prisoners after they have completed their GED's (especially important since this is the prison that houses Michigan's "Youthful Adult Offenders", ages 13 to 18, most of whom have never had a real job and lack even the basic knowledge necessary to live on their own). The Building Trades Class teaches basic carpentry skills. The Food Technology and Hospitality Trades Class teach the basic skills necessary to work in the hotel/hospitality industry, kitchen maintenance, and the more advanced skills of food preparation and cooking necessary to get a job in the food service industry.

This is the story of one class that made it through Hell's Kitchen Cooking School.

August 1

We begin a new class today. A class in the morning for the adults, and one in the afternoon for the "kids." The class for the adults begins at 7 AM, and everyone looks tired. It's one hell of a crew. Many are scruffy-looking, like they haven't shaved or been to the barber in a long time. Most of their clothes are wrinkled, worn, their shoes full of holes. Some of them smell, one of them pretty badly.

Orientation: I give a brief overview of the class, letting them know that it's an awesome class to take, where they can learn--and eat--a lot. I took the class three years earlier, and it was the best decision of my entire decade I've spent locked up. I mention the tests they need to take to advance to each tier of the class, the Right-to-Know info for our basic kitchen chemicals (OSHA applies even in prison), and the hygiene issue. Nobody who smells gets to cook, and everybody washes their hands when entering the kitchen, or when they get something on their hands, or after scratching an itch. Even if my boss isn't around to see, that's one thing you'll have a problem with me for, as you'll be cooking my food too.

A student raises his hand. "Will we be cooking, like, steak?"

I see the cheek muscles contract in each student as they quietly salivate. The answer is "No." My boss teaches cooking and preparation techniques for a wide variety of foods. He always says that, while steak is great, any idiot can marinate a slab of meat and throw it on the grill until it's medium-rare. We teach how to prepare full meals, improve lower-quality and harder-to-cook cuts and make them delicious, how to make sauces, sides, how to bake. The glorious thing about the class, though, is that the students get to at least try some of whatever they make. Employed as a tutor/assistant chef, I get to (actually, I have to) try what they make as well. Having grown up on microwave pizzas and chimichongas, I actually eat better now than I ever have before in my life.

August 25

The students have finished the hotel/hospitality aspect of the class. Honestly, no one signs up for the class for that, but the course gives them a real-world certificate. It's something they can actually show a prospective employer when they get out, which is something they desperately need. Imagine a 14 year old doing 10 years hard time, never having had a real job outside of prison, only a GED, and trying to get a job without some sort of certification.

They also just took a nationally-recognized food safety certification course. We actually read the entire textbook out loud, and I mentioned each vitally important note they need to write down and study (Food Temperature Danger Zone, minimum cooking times for meats…). Most of the class passes. One of the two who doesn't has a learning disability. The other says (seriously), ''Man, I didn't know we actually had to pass the test to move on to the kitchen. I would've actually tried if I knew that."

September 12

Today was our students’ first day in the actual kitchen section/tier of the class! We have a full-service kitchen: stove, two ovens, griddle, fryer, steamer, proof box, a three-quarter horsepower mixer, two smaller Kitchenaide mixers, a food processor, and a fridge and freezer (the students aren't allowed in those: staff or tutors get what's needed out of them).

One of our students, a scruffy-looking redhead with a swastika tattoo who's been bragging about how much of a master-chef he is, set a new record for shortest amount of time in the kitchen before getting an injury. Burns are inevitable when working around an oven/stove, and accidental cuts from the knives tethered to the tables periodically happen. Never before have we had a student cut himself within the first 4-1/2 minutes of his first time in the kitchen, particularly from using a tool we told him not to use. He was assigned to separate some frozen hamburger patties with a metal spatula so they would thaw quicker. But despite being told not to use the knife, he snuck over, tried to use it to separate them, and the knife slipped and cut him. My boss took the knife and metal spatula away, and after he got bandaged and cleaned up, gave Red one of those little white plastic serrated knives and told him to finish.

September 20

We did a sautéing demonstration for the class--some of the young guys said they never even heard the word sauté before--then taught them how to make omelettes. We showed them, and then let them practice, including the flipping technique. Oh, the humanity! Eggs went flying and landed everywhere. It looked like a poultry version of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

By the end of the class, everyone had successfully flipped an omelette. This is what the class is for--to teach students, and to give them the chance to make mistakes, learning and mastering the techniques they'd probably never risk trying otherwise.

September 28

We had some whipped cream left over from making some pumpkin pies (using pumpkins grown in the prison garden). My fellow tutor/assistant chef (and friend) B filled up a large soup bowl with whipped cream, ate it with a spoon, then filled up the bowl again, ate it, then filled up his bowl a third time with whipped cream and this time used two chocolate-chip cookies to scoop it out and eat. He's already way too overweight, and how the hell he doesn't have diabetes, I don't know.

I'd be concerned about him, but he's a big boy, an old tough guy who's softened only around the belly. He used to rob banks to get money to party and do drugs. He's replaced that addictive personality with food now. I think it's better for him. Well, maybe.

October 2

We take pride in making everything from scratch, and in teaching the students how to do the same. We make our own breads, hamburger buns, dinner rolls, pizza dough, pie dough, cookies, cakes…every baked good you can think of. Students made hamburger buns today, and learned the basic bakery principals (like proofing, punching, kneading, rounding). The technique of rounding and stretching was new to them, so we ended up with some very "uniquely" shaped buns. My boss said that they have character. The students then learned how to use the oven fan to brown the tops of the buns.

We also tested out a tortilla recipe for an upcoming Staff Meal. Staff meals are a class learning experience where we set up like a restaurant, with tablecloths and nicer plates, and any staff who works in the prison can pay a small price to have inmate waiters serve them a select appetizer, one of four gourmet entrees, and one of three delectable desserts. We have one planned for later this month, though I'm concerned about whether the students will be ready. It's an important event to keep the class running, and to justify our cooking and my job as a tutor. We take pride in being the best restaurant in the city for a day.

B kept calling the tortillas "Authentic Mexican tortillas" for some reason, even though the only Hispanic guy in our class didn't show up today. When I think of authentic tortillas, I think of an old Latina woman stretching dough by hand and baking it on a not stone. Ours turned out pretty good though.

October 8

Our youngest student, Ouncey, is 16 years old. Ouncey is a normal adolescent who happened to break into a bunch of houses with his older brother, sending him to adult prison. Equal parts shy, immature, ready-to-learn, and eager to prove himself. His favorite statement to make when someone underestimates him or tells him to do something is, “I'm a grown-ass man" (followed by a lip snack in disdain).

We got some incredibly hot "'Ornamental" peppers grown here in the garden by accident. Damon, an older "tough" with a giant face tattoo, grabbed one and popped it in his mouth, much to his regret. He ran to get some water, and sweat beaded on the tattoo that ran up his forehead as he began panting like a dog.

Ouncey, having seen him eat the pepper (but not his reaction to it) wanted to prove himself and grabbed one of the tiny peppers too. I put my hand on his arm to stop him, and advised him not to eat it, telling him that Damon is an idiot. Damon, to his credit, came over (still panting) and admitted as much, adding that he had to hold back tears because it was so hot.

Ouncey, however, could not hold back from the challenge of the crucible. With an "I'm a grown-ass man," he pulled his arm away and popped the pepper in his mouth. I'm pretty sure I actually saw steam come out of his ears like in the cartoons as his eyes opened wide and fists clenched. "Oh shit, that's hot," he whined in a deep voice, trying to make it sound manlier. "Water…” he said as he ran to the sink, though it didn't help. He ran his hands back and forth along his pants as I walked over and mixed him of the powdered milk we use to bake with. Tears were coming out of his eyes, and drinking the milk was all that stopped the cursing.

The class was beginning to look at the commotion. Already young and vulnerable, I though fast of a way to save Ouncey's reputation. I walked him over to the eyewash station, and loudly said, "This’ll help if you got some in your eyes" before forcing his face into the water. His reputation saved, the class's curiosity satisfied, I returned to making our incredible, original recipe homemade BBQ sauce.

[I told my boss about the incident later, and he got a good laugh. I wonder if Ouncey would be honored to know that from now on, we've redubbed the Ornamental peppers as "Ouncey Peppers".]

October 16

Crunch time. The staff meal is less than a week away, and I honestly have no idea how the guys will perform. Some days, some of them really seem to want to learn, and other days they seem to not be able to care less. Had to talk to some of them about their issue with being here on time. From this point on, if they're late on a day we're prepping or cooking, they're getting left out of the boat. We have former students who will jump at the chance of coming back for a day if needed.

Our menu is set, and has been posted around the facility for the officers. The appetizer of the day will be their choice of a Michigan salad (a creamy dressing with walnuts and dried Michigan cherries), or potato-leek soup. Our entrees include chicken
piccatta, The Pig Mac (a cooked-to-order burger topped with succulent pulled-pork tossed in our homemade BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, and Swiss on a homemade bun), Stuffed Tilapia (stuffed with a mixture of crab, shrimp, and scallops in a creamy, rich sauce), and sautéed sirloin tips. The featured desserts are homemade pumpkin cheesecake, our original peanut-butter crunch cake, and apple pie with apples picked in the prison's garden (after everything else was harvested for charity).

The BBQ sauce was made last week. We prepped and made the buns, which the students have gotten better at, caramelized the onions, and made the pie dough. We'll finish the pies and do the rest of the prepping over the week.

October 21

Day before the meal. Everyone's been showing up. They realize now they'll be left out if they don't. We finished most of everything that won't be cooked to order tomorrow. Desserts are all made. Tilapia's been stuffed and is waiting to be cooked. The ingredients for the Pig Mac and the sirloin tips have been portioned out.

We do a test run of the each item so everyone can see how they're made and served…and how they taste. Everything meets everyone's stamp of approval. We're not going to serve anything we wouldn't eat ourselves.

October 22

The meal went smoothly, as always. We served over 120 staff, from the officers and administration to nurses and maintenance. Comment cards were placed in the hallway for them to use. Every one of them praised us, except for one. That criticism was that we didn't do the meals more often. We will, now that this class is up and running and we know they can work.

Everyone did a great job. My boss stayed in the kitchen to supervise and maintain "operational security" on the food, while my co-workers B and D (who helped teach me when I was a student and who continues to now) made sure everyone was stocked up on what was needed, performing their jobs properly, and relieved them when they needed it. They also made sure everyone washed their hands regularly, though no one needed to be told to.

I worked as the head waiter/maître d’. I oversaw three waiters, who took their customers’ orders and delivered them their meals without a hitch. Any one of them could easily do this for a living.

The fun for the students came at the end of their 12 hour shift, when, as a reward for their hard work, they got to try each item. This is what I lived for when I was a student in their position working meals. It was better food than some had eaten in decades. One older guy, locked up for almost 30 years, almost cried at the taste of the sirloin tips. I thought that might've made a good advertisement, "So good it'll make you cry."

October 23

Today just happens to be my birthday, and I couldn't ask for a better gift in here than getting to eat leftover chicken piccatta, a Pig Mac, sirloin tips, and cheesecake! It's by far the best meal I've ever eaten for my birthday in my life.

B did the most awesome creation ever. He took some cheesecake, put it on the peanut-butter crunch cake, put ice cream on top, then sandwiched it (or at least tried to) between two chocolate chip cookies we baked today. As he's eating it, he's telling me that he's actually lost 10 pounds over the past couple weeks. Then he turned around to grab something, and I said that I think I found all that weight he lost.

March 6

Today, after six months, four staff meals and numerous other events for the warden, administration, and others, our students graduate. They've learned to clean, to bake, to cook different meats and seafood, to prepare vegetables and sides. They could go into any restaurant and know what to do.

Many former students have done so, getting out and working at successful restaurants around the state. Three that I know of now own their own restaurants, and are doing well. Two former students started their own food trucks.

I hope to do the same someday. I would feel confident going into any kitchen in any of even the most high-end restaurants and doing, or running, whatever needs to be done. I know what I would need to do to start my own restaurant. And I started as a student who had never used an oven before in my life, never having had a real job outside of prison. Without this opportunity, I would have lacked the skills to change my life around. I would have gotten out someday, after having been locked up at fifteen, without a single employable skill.

Now, there's nothing I, nor my students, can't do. And we learned it all in Hell's (okay, okay…in Purgatory's) Kitchen Cooking School.

(Some names have been changed for the privacy of the students, and some dates have been estimated. All stories, however, are told exactly as they occurred.)

And now, a secret recipe from the annals of the Hell's Kitchen Cooking School's famous collection. I've had the opportunity to try numerous recipes for the same thing, and this is by far, in this kitchen or out in the real world, the best English style toffee I've ever eaten in my life.

Homemade Toffee

1 cup butter (real butter gives greatly superior result)
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup finely chopped almonds

In large saucepan, combine butter, sugar, and salt. Cook, constantly scraping bottom and sides of pan with rubber spatula, until mixture becomes dark amber color and reaches 285 °F on thermometer.

Pour mixture over parchment or foil-lined half-sheet pan. Sprinkle almonds, and semi-sweet chocolate chips (to preference) on top, carefully pressing them in. Place in refrigerator to set up. Break into pieces. Serve, or use in other recipes.

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

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Anonymous said...

Awesome story Chris!! I'm glad to see that there are programs in place there to help you guys enrich yourselves and provide opportunities once you leave "Purgatory". As an avid cook myself, I'll have to give that toffee recipe a shot. I also love that you guys have access to fresh produce, fresh product really can't be beat! I've always enjoyed the articles you submit, there are always well written, thought provoking and fun to read. Keep leading by example and I have no doubt you'll succeed anywhere you put your mind to it. Until next time, Be Well - Ken

Anonymous said...

A good piece of writing Chris...very entertaining and easy to follow I laughed at how the fat pig ate 3bowls of whipped cream my GF read it as well....and thanks for your efforts and keep writing helped pass some time in this Canadian winter....any ideas on how to cook rabbits?

Anonymous said...

This piece is a great read, brilliantly and sensitively written, and it shows some of the good that is being done in facilities to help the people there.
I'm actually British, so I will be trying that toffee recipe sometime and seeing how it compares to the toffee over here.
You clearly have a lot to give Chris, going by this and your other work. Don't let that fade.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Chris Dankovich:

Thank you Ken, Laura, and my friend from Canada for your comments. I'm so lucky to have this job, even luckier to get to eat as well as I do, and luckiest to be able to help these young guys learn a valuable skill (one I didnt know myself before I took the class). It's programs like this that promote not only positive growth and re-habilitation, but for many of these youth it provides some of their first ever "habilitation," necessary life skills they never learned in the first place. Okay, and let's face it, they get to eat some amazing stuff as they do. Hope you enjoy the toffee recipe. Toffee is probably my favorite candy, and this one makes a lot of toffee that seems to magically disappear into people's stomachs. As for rabbits, usually the best thing you can do is cook in a tomato-based sauce, as the acidity helps cut through the gaminess. Something like a chicken parmesan, only with rabbit cuts, could be good as well, and should work. And there's always rabbit stew, with tomato sauce, and lots of onions, maybe some peppers, and whatever else you've got around to throw in.