LITTLE VILLAGE — A few days a week, 20 inmates at the Cook County Jail escape to the basement of their medium-security home.
There is a kitchen down here. The floors are concrete. The walls are white. Surfaces are stainless steel, dull and spotless. There is nothing in plain sight — no colorful produce, no hunks of meat or bowls of spices — that suggests or invites the kind of happy, sloppy, aromatic cooking that brings people to the table. No distinct smells, good or bad, waft through here.
Still, for three hours at a time, this kitchen is a most welcoming place for the inmates of Division 11.
The men — a few of them just 18 and 19 years old — are students in a pilot culinary program that began in late March. Their goal for the next 90 days is to learn the skills they need to land kitchen jobs when they get out of jail, so they can stay out.
Janet Rausa Fuller chats with DNAinfo Radio about a pilot culinary program at the Cook County Jail:
The chef in charge, Bruno Abate, owns Tocco restaurant in trendy Wicker Park, six miles and a world away from the massive jail complex near 31st Street and California Avenue.
Abate, 59, a native of Naples, Italy, is no stranger to this world behind bars. He taught a similar program at the Cook County Boot Camp last year, and before that at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles.
For the first class, Abate went over kitchen safety and sanitation rules and brought out fragrant bunches of rosemary, thyme, basil and sage. Most of the men hadn't seen or smelled fresh herbs before.
"I always thought it was fancy stuff for restaurants," one inmate said.
"In three months, I can't do miracles," Abate said. "My mission is to transfer to them the love of food. Not everyone wants to be a chef. But if you have the love of food, you have the love of life."
On a Tuesday morning, the inmates, wearing white chef jackets and hats — leftovers from the boot camp cooking program — stood at a long work table, each facing a ball of pizza dough made the previous day.
Abate wanted them to get a feel for the dough, to stretch it and work it into a circle. It didn't have to be perfect. It wasn't perfect. The dough was tearing all over. Abate said they might have used too much yeast or let the dough sit too long out of the cooler. They would make more and try again.
Cooking can be forgiving. But when it comes to discipline, there are no do-overs in the program.
"It's zero-tolerance. One screw-up, one incident, and they're out," said Ben Breit, director of communications for the Cook County Sheriff's Office.
Each inmate was vetted in a three-week process overseen by Lt. D. Delitz, a 19-year veteran of the jail and the group's mother hen. She has three boys of her own.
Out of more than 70 inmates interviewed, 24 were chosen. The class is now down to 20 because four were sent to state prison.
None have been charged with a violent crime or have gang affiliations. All are serving at least 90-day sentences. And they all have to be serious about cooking and change, and to explain that in written essays as part of the application process.
Delitz also chose the officers who bring the inmates from their cells down to the kitchen and watch over them during class.
Knives, if and when they are used, are tethered to work tables. The handwritten name tags pinned to their white jackets are removed and collected at the end of class before they return to their cells.
"You should see some of what's been turned into a weapon. You'd be surprised at the creativity," Breit said.
Still, said Delitz, "I'm pretty confident in the group we have."
Participation is a privilege. These men know it.
"I got blessed. I was in the right place at the right time. I'm just taking advantage of everything I can and making it positive," said Timothy, 29, a father of two girls. It's his fifth stint behind bars — DUI and driving on a suspended license this time — and his first in a program like this.
Jerry, 31, is trying to get back to where he had been, managing a Papa John's pizza shop, before drugs landed him in Division 11.
"The people I worked for really want me to come back," he said. "I'm here to learn more about the food business. It's a great opportunity for me."
Abate brings the ingredients for each lesson. He had to call in a favor for a donated stove. The only other stove is in a smaller room separate from the main kitchen, not ideal for his lessons.
In the first few weeks, they've made pasta, pizza, focaccia, gnocchi and panzerotti — from scratch, by hand. Once Abate gets permission from the jail, he plans to bring in an iron to teach them how to press their chef jackets.
"Those jackets have to stay clean," he told them.
At 6-foot-5, Abate towers over the group. He is every bit Italian, from his thick accent and tinted glasses to the way he talks with his hands.
He peppers his speech with "garbage" and "bulls---." As in: American pizza and Popeye's fried chicken — garbage. Fancy "fusion confusion" cooking — bulls---.
Some of the men joke that they can't understand him because of his accent. But they listen.
"I'm choosing to learn instead of sitting around doing dead time. If you can't eat, you can't live," said DeAndre, 37, who longs to someday open a casual restaurant, "like a Boston Market."
Abate gives the men reading homework from a book titled "On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals." He bought 14 copies of the book, so some of them have to share.
Delitz, who oversees Division 11's other work programs, watches every class. She is constantly on the move, peeking over shoulders, offering an encouraging voice or a stern one, depending on the moment.
"Most of the programs are more mental, you know? But this one, you actually get to see the results. And most men ... that's the way they learn," she said.
Delitz has taken a particular interest in a 19-year-old named Darien, who's in on robbery charges. She calls him Baby Boy.
"I normally wouldn't choose such a young one, but there was something about this one," she said, watching him pat dough into a neat circle with a crimped border.
"See, he wanted us to roll it thin, but I like to be different than everybody else. I did mine with an edge," Darien said.
There's a grin lurking just behind his serious eyes. He said his uncle is a chef, so the kitchen is familiar territory.
"I've cooked fried chicken, pancakes, mashed potatoes," he said.
Darien said he might follow in his uncle's footsteps. But there is something else he said he'll do first.
"Once I get out, I want to go somewhere else. A different state," he said, smoothing his floured hands across the dough, which had begun to dry out. "The farther you go, the less people you know. I got in with the wrong people."
THE ELUSIVE JOB
Time drags inside Division 11, but once you're out, the clock is ticking. Go back to the old neighborhood and fall in with the same crowd, and you'll likely end up back in jail, or worse.
"It becomes a vicious cycle," Breit said.
Criminal justice experts say the first few weeks after release are crucial. A 2008 paper by the nonprofit Urban Institute cites research that found the likelihood of violations and re-arrests in that first month to be almost double that of the 15th month.
Employment is critical to staying out of trouble, experts say. But it is no guarantee, and easier said than done. The stain of a criminal record is too deep for many potential employers to look past. Often the interview is over before it even begins.
Within this complicated climate, there has been a growing emphasis on job-training programs and services as a strategy to reduce unemployment as well as recidivism, said Hank Rosen, policy analyst at the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center.
Programs have diversified to include more unique approaches such as community gardening. These, along with vocational training, work release and prison industries, are now "wildly popular" in prisons and jails, Rosen said.
The corrections field also is "getting smarter at how it structures and delivers rehabilitative services to reduce the likelihood someone will re-offend at release," he said.
In other words, they aren't for every inmate. Research has shown that those deemed "high-risk" benefit the most from intensive programs that nurture job readiness as well as behavioral change. Their low-risk peers, on the other hand, might actually be worse off in such settings.
The programs at Cook County Jail read like a Discovery Center catalog: barber school, guitar, parenting. Volunteers like Abate run them at no cost to the county. There are anger management classes and others related to health and well-being, too.
"Every hour they're doing something. That's my goal, to keep them continuously busy," Delitz said.
The jail's gardening program, run since 1993 with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, might be its most well known and visible (literally — you can see it from California Avenue). Inmates maintain the garden and can earn master gardener certification. Last summer, they built a home for their newest residents, chickens. The produce goes to some of Chicago's top restaurants.
The barber program, started in 2012 in partnership with Larry's Barber College, a leading Chicago school, recently expanded to Division 11. It's a big deal. Inmates who successfully complete instruction and testing will be licensed to cut hair in Illinois.
Delitz and her staff are constantly refining the jail's network of services. Her plan is to expand the culinary program from three-hour sessions to eight hours.
She has other ideas: an incentive program, for example, to reward good behavior in Division 11 with food cooked by inmates in the culinary program. Abate wants his students to eventually produce pasta and other foods that could be sold on store shelves.
A PUSH FORWARD
Several weeks ago, a former Division 11 inmate started a new job washing dishes at Tocco, Abate's restaurant.
"That's where people have to start," Abate said. "That's where they prove to me they want to change their lives."
Of course, he can't hire everyone who passes through the class, but he said he will make calls on their behalf. The food service industry is always in need of hard workers and more accepting than others of someone with marks on his record.
Abate doesn't bother asking his students about the past.
"It's none of my business to ask," he said.
They likely don't know his back story, either — why he spends this time with them every week.
About four years ago, Abate's daughter befriended a woman whose dad killed her mom. The dad was sentenced to Due Palazzi, a prison near Padua, Italy.
The prison is famous in Italy for its award-winning bakery, Pasticceria Giotto, where inmates bake and sell thousands of loaves of panettone, a sweet bread, and other pastries.
The story stuck with Abate. Around this time, he said he remembers watching a TV program about incarcerated youth, some as young as 14. It was unsettling.
"Something told me, 'Hey, you need to do something.' God maybe pushed me," he said.
Abate doesn't have a strict lesson plan for his program at Division 11, except to teach them how to cook and appreciate real food, the kind he grew up eating, the kind he believes everyone deserves.
For the pizza dough class, he brought in a wooden pizza peel and had them take turns sliding it under their rolled-out dough. While they worked, he urged them to stay away from processed foods like hot dogs.
"Olive oil," he announced, holding up a slim bottle he'd brought from the restaurant. "This will save your life forever."
It just might.