Original artwork lines the walls just outside where I’ll be having lunch on this day.
It’s cool and quiet inside. Along one wall is the brick oven that’ll produce the kind of pizza diners gladly line up to enjoy. In an adjoining room mushrooms, onions and peppers are sliced with professional precision by a trio of young men while others do a variety of kitchen chores.
This isn’t your typical restaurant. Recipe for Change is in the basement of Division 11 of Cook County Jail. It’s the brainchild of Bruno Abate, executive chef of the highly regarded Tocco. Abate says one day God spoke to him, telling him this is what he needed to do; so he did. It’s as simple as that as to why for the last 3½ years he spends five days a week here.
It’s obvious the men know he’s the real deal. As soon as he sweeps into the room – wearing sunshine yellow pants, his chef’s white jacket and sunglasses – all eyes are on him. They are eager for his instruction, knowledge and kindness.
About 15 to 20 detainees participate in 12 weeks of curriculum for four hours a day, according to Avril Greenberg, chef/instructor with Recipe for Change. When choosing participants, restaurant experience is unnecessary. Instead, Abate wants people “committed to wanting to change their lives,” says Greenberg.
They receive sanitation, nutrition and culinary instruction. With the program’s completion they have a food service sanitation license, something they can use to gain employment.
And that pizza? Wow, is it good! There’s real skill to getting the crust just right, as they do here. On weekdays, the program’s participants make and sell 50 to 100 pizzas to the detainees.
Abate acknowledges that learning this trade is a good thing and he has hired people from the program; others have gone on to solid culinary jobs. Yet employment’s not his top goal. Building self-esteem and dignity is. Without those ingredients, the recipe for success can be elusive, says Abate.
The pantry is orderly and stocked with the best of ingredients; Abate insists on that because that’s a big part of the program too, to get participants to discover the value of good food. He wants them to have that for themselves and their children.
The detainees’ offspring are always on Abate’s mind. Inscribed on one wall is a quote from him: “The biggest crime is to deny a child their childhood.”
It’s not just culinary education he provides, but life lessons, too. He tells the men that they can say they love their children but real love is making sure they are physically there for them.
Yes, they may have made a mistake and now are in Division 11, says Abate. But they need to use their time here to make a plan for the future. Without it, they run a good chance of returning.
Expansion is always on Abate’s mind, and he’s grateful for those whose donations help make that happen (to contribute, visit http://www.recipeforchangeproject.org). A nearby room is for art, where participants have created portraits of Prince, the Beatles and others for a music room and its multi-faceted program. Abate also will kick off a similar culinary program in the women’s division. Both are expected to begin in the next few weeks.
Abate knows some wonder why he’s doing this. All people need to understand, he says, is “how beautiful it is to do something for someone else. It saves your life.”
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