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'Quentin Cooks' Program Teaches San Quentin Inmates Fine Culinary Skills

SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) -- On a night at San Quentin Prison, behind its bars and watchful guard towers, inmates who are serving time are also serving something else.

The group of incarcerated men is part of Quentin Cooks, a non-profit that will train them to make and serve fine dining meals, using ingredients like fennel, olive oil and lemon juice. It's not your typical fare for a prison dining room. And like any good chefs, there were some nerves in the kitchen as food was being prepared.

"Everything has to time out just right, the appetizer and the main course, getting down to that time," explained two inmates and fellow cooking students as they manned the toasted bread station. "It's getting down to the nitty gritty right now! "

Adding to the pressure is the full dining room just outside the kitchen, where former inmates and community members wait eagerly for their plates. But even with the chefs' concerns about oven temperatures and cooking times, there was joy and sense of deep pride in the kitchen.

Just for a moment, these chefs were able to trade their prison blue uniforms for professional-style white chef's coats.

Lainy Helnitzer is the co-founder of the organization Quentin Cooks. She says the unique culinary program recruits professional chefs who volunteer to teach inmates cooking skills required to work in a commercial restaurant.

"They are happy and excited," said Helnitzer. "What we hadn't anticipated is the men really have learned to work as a team."

Quentin Cooks graduates receive a Food Handler Certificate from the Marin County Department of Public Health. When they are paroled, Quentin Cooks volunteers help the men find jobs in the food industry.

Former inmate and Quentin Cooks graduate Michael Cook is back at San Quentin for the inmate prepared meal. Cook says he is grateful to the program for helping him gain a job upon his release.

"I left [prison] with nothing. I had nothing," recalled Cook. "I had no one. And it was just someone taking mercy upon me and giving me an opportunity."

Current student and newly minted Quentin Cooks graduate Philip says he has 14 more months before he is paroled. He is excited about the new skills he has acquired and he is looking forward to pursuing a new future of legitimate employment opportunities.

"It boosts my spirit," said Phillip. "When I come here to cook, I feel, like, a sense of freedom. I feel like I'm not even locked up. So it gives me hope for the future. I would like to cook for the future."

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