The Problem:Detainees released without job training — or self-esteem
The Fix:A culinary arts training program at Cook County Jail
The Backstory:As the owner of Wicker Park’s popular Italian restaurant Tocco, Bruno Abate can recite off the top of his head the ingredients needed for the perfect Neapolitan pizza or lasagna Bolognese. Just as easily, the native of Italy can rattle off incarceration data comparing the United States with his birth country: The U.S. locks up more than five and a half times as many people per capita.
Eight years ago, frustrated by a system that he believes is overly punitive, Abate dreamed up the idea for Recipe for Change, a culinary arts training and mentorship program for people in jail that formally organized as a nonprofit in 2014. Detainees work in a professional-grade kitchen at Cook County Jail that Abate built with donations, including a $50,000 MacArthur Foundation grant.
Participants learn to make fresh pasta and pizzas that other detainees can purchase through the commissary. (That money goes back into the program and the jail’s Inmate Welfare Fund.) Beyond cooking, Abate and his instructors also teach sanitation techniques, kitchen teamwork, and serving etiquette. Though Tocco is among the restaurants that have hired Recipe for Change alumni, finding them employment is not Abate’s primary goal.
“Believe it or not, the job is not the solution,” he says. “You have to restore things inside people first . Give them back their dignity, give them back their hope, their trust, their self-esteem. When they feel human, that’s when the job will come easy.” Abate estimates Recipe for Change has between 300 and 400 alumni — and he knows of fewer than 10 who have returned to jail.
Where you come in:Abate is looking to double his $350,000 annual budget so he can finish a kitchen for female detainees and start a food truck to serve program-made pizzas. You can donate at recipeforchangeproject.org.