by Aron Kumar Roy

A class of men incarcerated at San Quentin graduated from a cooking course aimed at teaching them topnotch skills for reintegration into the workforce once released.

Thanks to the Quentin Cooks program, the eight men showcased their newfound skills on Nov. 13 by preparing a four-course meal for visitors from outside the walls of San Quentin.

“The food was astonishingly delicious,” said San Francisco Public Defender Manojar Raju, “But I think if more people were able to meet everyone in here and get to know them, they would be astonished by their resilience and determination to succeed.”

The theme of the meal was “Winter Squash Five Ways.”

The incarcerated chefs prepared the meal with assistance from instructors Chef Huw and Chef Adelaar. Several graduates also returned to help.

“I just thought we were going to go in there and pretty much make some meals,” said graduate Breon Mosely. “But we also got to learn what it was like to work on a team, how to plan out a meal, how to use the equipment, and learn how a kitchen overall runs.”

To begin the night, the cooks served butternut squash agro dolce with burrata cheese and chili crunch oil. A perfectly paired squash, apple and turnip soup was served along with the agro dolce.

The appetizer was a salad of roasted delicata squash, kale, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, chicories, winter citrus and goat cheese.

The entrée: grilled Allen Bros. rib eye steak, squash and chard gratin, roasted mushrooms, and salsa verde. To satisfy the guests’ sweet tooth: pumpkin cannoli with mascarpone, pistachios and cocoa nibs.

“The food was so flavorful, and the guys got really creative with the squash,” said Hadi Razzaq, who also works in the San Francisco Public Defenders office. “This is the kind of food I would expect at a fancy restaurant.”

After the meal, cofounder of Quentin Cooks Helaine Melnitzer delivered a heartwarming speech, thanking everyone who made the program possible.

“We’re not just a culinary program; we’re a skills based program, helping men-in-blue to succeed,” said Melnitzer. “Of the 55 men who have graduated so far, many of them released, as far as we know, none have returned to prison.”

Melnitzer, along with cofounder Lisa Dombroski, won a Jefferson Award this past August for her efforts associated with the Quentin Cooks program. A Jefferson Award is a weekly honor given to a community member for volunteer work in the community.

“The most precious thing you can give somebody is your time, because you can’t get it back,” said Melnitzer.

Dombroski shared the spotlight with the chefs who come to San Quentin for the five hour class on Wednesday mornings. “Chefs Huw and Adelaar, I never would have imagined I would find chefs whose passion for the program exceeded that of the founders.

“Every time one of our released men gets a job, it’s like Christmas for us.”

The graduating men not only value the culinary skills they learn in the program but also the opportunities they have to pursue a career in the culinary world once they are released.

“As we got to learn all these skills and techniques, we would think about how to utilize them,” said Mosely, “The program helps you to find a job when you’re released so that you can use these skills. You may have to start at the bottom, but if you’re determined, you can climb the ladder, hopefully become a chef, and be able to run your own kitchen one day.”

A new feature introduced at the Quentin Cooks sixth graduation banquet was entertainment by Quentin Cooks graduates.

Jason Griffin opened the show with a poem. Kerry Rudd and Jesse Ayers each performed humorous skits, which had the whole crowd laughing. Finally, Derry “Brotha Dee” Brown finished with a song called “My Best Friend.”

“The program just keeps improving with every cycle,” said Santhosh Daniel, a filmmaker who comes in to follow the Quentin Cooks program. “Every guy who’s getting out and doing well contributes to a track record of succes