COOKING WITH HOPE
A look inside the culinary work program at the South Lake Tahoe Jail.
WRITTEN BY RAE AND TROY MATTHEWS
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
While fine cooking often is praised as an art, it also can be a life-changing skill — one that gives hope to the hopeless and voice to the voiceless. Nowhere is that more true than for the inmates in the culinary program at El Dorado County Jail in South Lake Tahoe. Running continuously for 26 years under the guidance of Jeannette Shippee, correctional cook coordinator, the program’s inmates discover self-worth while gaining practical, real-world experience.
Getting to the jail’s kitchen means walking through a series of dreary and imposing hallways, past psychological hold cells, inmates on lockdown, and then, finally, through barred gates. The kitchen, although providing inmates with open access to cutlery, immediately feels as if it’s the safest place in the entire facility.
Only the most well-behaved inmates are allowed to take part in culinary work detail. Participants are required to prepare all of the day’s meals for the rest of the inmates, the staff, and the guards. While it may seem like a great deal of work, the participants consider it a welcome break from the usual monotony of incarceration.
These inmates are separated from the general population and given more freedom than the average jail inmate. Most enter the program for precisely that — freedom. But almost all come out with a desire to pursue careers in the food industry. Rob*, an inmate for three years, even has applied to culinary school.
“The biggest thing is it is such a great opportunity to learn stuff, you know? Jeannette is such a good influence on us,” Rob says. “I came into the kitchen and realized I really love this, and I can do something legal with my life. Something positive.”
His fellow inmate, Tony, agrees.
“You get caught up in the system … because you never get a chance to learn anything,” Tony says. “You’re stuck in bad places, and coming here was like a blessing … I just can’t wait to get home to cook for someone.”
So good it’s a crime
The program also offers a catering service to the public, delightfully known as So Good It’s A Crime. It was born out of necessity in 2007 on the night of the devastating Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe that destroyed a huge swath of the Tahoe basin and claimed about 250 homes. Inmates in the culinary program set to work preparing meals for firefighters and police officers, as well as for those in the evacuation shelter.
“Whoever needed food, we were there,” Shippee says. “It was a really good thing for the inmates to be part of the community.”
Since that time, So Good It’s A Crime has built a respectable reputation in the area. Its cooks are regularly booked to prepare meals for charity events and have won or placed in several cooking competitions. The hallway outside of the jail’s kitchen is lined with ribbons.
“Last year we won first in the salsa competition, first in cornbread, and I think second or third in chili,” Shippee says.
At these fairs and cooking competitions, the prisoners are able to interact with the public, which not only helps them develop customer-service skills, but also gives them a sense of pride in their work that they’ve never known.
“To see [the customers’] expressions and interact with the people that way is a level we are really not used to,” Tony says.
“Just being able to work around people, speak to real people that aren’t criminals,” Rob adds, “it’s life experience, whether you want to be a cook when you get out or not.”
Hope for the future
After spending years, sometimes decades, incarcerated, inmates often are released with nothing but freedom — no money, no job, and no support structure of any kind. Programs such as this one are created to help reduce recidivism. Although they can have a profound impact, Rob and Tony still will face an uphill battle on the outside. Both admit they are apprehensive. Rob has his eye on attending the Culinary Institute of America, but he’s not sure what he’ll do if not accepted.
Their famous carrot cheesecake and lemon curd sweetbread are delicious, but the real treat is the look on Rob and Tony’s faces as their day’s work is hungrily devoured. It was bittersweet to see their pride at a job well done while knowing the challenges they will face. All we could do was shake their hands and wish them the best for their futures.
Jeannette Shippee is optimistic for Rob and Tony. After 26 years, she has a keen sense of who might make it and who probably will be back. But she perseveres in her work to offer what few in Rob and Tony’s position ever receive: hope and pride in a skill that can change their lives for the better.
Rae and Troy Matthews are highly active South Lake Tahoe locals who advocate for culinary education for underserved populations. They manage two food blogs: Lustforcooking.com, a celebration of cooking at home, and Elevationeats.com, a promotion of the Tahoe food scene with a focus on sustainable living and cultural advancement.
* Inmates’ last names were omitted out of respect for their privacy.