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Film will capture chef’s culinary training of Chicago inmates

By Anthony Kaufman/For Sun-Times Media

On Monday and Tuesday mornings, Chicago filmmaker Gary Sherman (“Missing Persons”) meets Italian chef Bruno Abate (Tocco Restaurant) in the basement of Cook County’s Division XI medium-security jail. There, the two friends do what they do best: While Abate cooks, Sherman chronicles. But this unique collaboration goes beyond their typical job descriptions.

Since February, Abate has instituted a rehabilitation program called Recipe for Change, in which inmates exchange their jail uniforms for chef’s whites and hats and learn the finer points of the culinary arts. All the while, Sherman has been tagging along, making a documentary about Abate’s efforts in order to help facilitate corrections reform.

“These are not just people with numbers on their chest,” says Sherman, “they are human beings.”

With the film, titled “Serving Time,” Sherman wants “to give these guys a chance,” he adds, “and I want to show other people how to give these guys a chance.”

So far, Abate’s program appears to be doing just that. One of the former convicts has gone on to work in Tocco’s kitchen. Another has adopted dishwashing as his passion.

“By the end of the first session,” says Sherman, “we saw total transformation in the inmates: from ‘What the f— is this about?’ to ‘You don’t cut basil; you tear it.’ ”

A director known for his Chicago-set reality-TV series “The First 48: Missing Persons,” as well as ’80s cult movies “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and “Vice Squad,” Sherman never planned on moving into independent documentary filmmaking. But when he heard about Abate’s mission, he was hooked. He called friend and fellow Chicago producer Phil Koch (“Chicagoland”), and the two leapt into the project without any outside financial support.

As they follow select inmates cycling through the cooking program and out of jail, Koch hopes they can complete the film in 12-18 months.

Though the filmmakers still have a long way to go to raise their estimated $700,000 budget, “Serving Time” has some distinguished supporters. Chicago powerhouse documentary company Kartemquin Films (“The Interrupters”) has signed on as an executive producer. And in September, the Chicago Media Project (CMP), a new philanthropic funding organization founded by Chicago attorney Steve Cohen and former Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy dean Paula M. Froehle, hosted a fundraising dinner for “Serving Time” at Tocco.

Both filmmakers and backers are united behind the idea that documentaries can be an important tool for social action. “Impact media,” as Cohen calls it, “provides a forum for people to get together and figure out an action plan around an issue: It’s the kindling for change.”

When Cohen and Froehle heard about “Serving Time” through Koch, they realized it would be the perfect project to launch CMP’s new Homegrown series, which connects its 30-plus donors with films that have Chicago roots. The film also fits well with CMP’s newly launched Justice Initiative, which is helping to develop and create media projects centered on criminal and civil justice reform.

For its makers, “Serving Time” then isn’t just a documentary; it’s the beginning of a campaign. “I want to give this movie away, to legislatures, prison systems, and city governments,” says Sherman, “because it’s terrible these people’s lives are being wasted. They have the capability to be an asset to society, not a deficit.”