Chicago-based chef Bruno Abate is giving back to his community by operating a cafe that is run by inmates of the Division 11 of the city’s Cook County Jail. This enterprise is part of a unique rehabilitation program designed to keep inmates out of trouble and on the way to rebuilding their futures with relevant skills.
The proud owner of Tocco, Abate is an Italian born and bred chef who is combining his passion for cuisine with humanitarian service via his program, Recipe for Change. The program was inspired by a similar initiative, called the Padua Prison Program, which is based in Abate’s mother country of Italy. Recipe for Change allows inmates of Chicago’s Cook County Jail to learn culinary arts skills while serving time.
In its early stages, the $25,000 program was mostly funded out of Abate’s own pocket. Now, with a $50,000 grant gifted to the chef from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as well as other generous donations (including a refrigerator, commercial freezer, espresso machine, etc.), the program is in for the long haul at the facility.
The chef’s enthusiasm and encouragement is proving to be a positive influence on the program’s 80 participants. To participate in the program, inmates must undergo a short application process, which involves a handwritten essay and an interview with Abate himself. All participants in the program are on trial for nonviolent offenses only.
After successfully completing the application process, the inmates meet with the chef three times a week in the security corrections building’s basement kitchen as they learn how to make homemade Italian cuisine such as pizza or roast lamb. After each lesson, the inmates and Abate sit down and share the meal they have prepared.
The inmates have praised both the program and Abate for not only quality food, but also the useful education they received. This program will hopefully make transitioning back into civilian life easier. One of the reasons for this, Abate believes, is because his program is instilling the inmates with the self-esteem they need to survive and thrive in the outside world.
“The purpose is not to find a five-star chef,” Abate said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “The purpose is to give people self-esteem. If you treat someone like garbage, he is going to act like garbage.”
One past inmate and participant of the program, Kevin Capozzi, stands as a shining example of the good Recipe for Change has enacted in the facility. Charged with auto theft, Capozzi landed in Cook County jail and was later hired by Abate to serve as the program’s prep cook.
After serving his time in the facility, Capozzi went on to serve as a prep cook in a restaurant in River Grove. Though bad habits are difficult to conquer, Capozzi has been working hard to make the most of the opportunities that Abate’s program has afforded him.
Plans to expand the program into a food truck run by the inmates at Chicago’s Daley Center are in the works, as well as a cookbook designed and created by the inmates. Abate is eager to see the uplifting effects the program will have in the future.
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