‘Some Quentin Cooks student-inmates have served a few years at San Quentin State Prison, some near a lifetime. What they have in common, is wanting something better, a life with possibilities, and community.’ -Lisa Dombroski
Having just completed its ‘Second Course,’ with a new roster of student-inmates, Quentin Cooks, a professional cooking program founded by dynamic former chef and CW Sales Rep Lisa Dombroski, (and S.Q. Program Developer Helaine Melnitaur) is quickly becoming one of the most impactful programs in San Quentin State Prison’s history.
From 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. every Monday since January ’17, eight, soon to be released, student-inmates enrolled in Quentin Cooks 2.0 have gathered in H Unit’s cafeteria kitchen to learn the fundamentals of being professional cooks.
Funded primarily by The Chefs’ Warehouse (along with VeggiWorks and ServSafe), Quentin Cooks, led by Dombroski and former chef/new CW Rep Andrew Martin, is a program where troubleshooting is an essential part of the curriculum. The sessions (including the final graduation day-five course event), are subject to a myriad of obstacles due of course to the program taking place within a maximum security prison.
CWmag.com visited Lisa and her students at San Quentin on the final day of the course, while prepping for the Quentin Cooks 2.0 Event and Graduation. The delivery of fresh vegetables that was due at 7 a.m., did not arrive until almost 12 p.m.. This type of unpredictable set back is a regular occurrence, Dombroski shared. With security being top priority, absolutely no risks are taken with anyone or anything coming and going in and out of the prison. Dombroski related ‘Ironically professional kitchens have to deal with sudden and unexplainable obstacles all of the time, so this aspect fits in well with the training.’
‘At my core, this program is what drives me. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s not everyday life. I source a lot of energy from it.’ -Lisa Dombroski
Along with professional cooking training, Q.C. students earn their ServSafe Certification, generously offered by ServSafe’s Michael Sabella. This certification makes it possible for the men to legally receive work placement in professional kitchens once released.
Providing the opportunity of employment to key inmate candidates after release is an unprecedented A-to-Z program model for San Quentin. Former inmate James Seegars (a.k.a ‘New York,’ released 10/16) and Joel McCarter are now working successfully in a professionals kitchen in The Bay Area and Sacramento. The latter assistance, release to placement aspect of the program, is managed to the largest degree by Q.C. Co- Founder/S.Q Program Developer Helaine Melnitzer.
Without the opportunity of employment and a support network, a vast percentage of released inmates find themselves spiraling back towards the negative choices that had them imprisoned in the first place, often the precursor to re-entry.
Quentin Cooks, at its core, embodies the ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ philosophy.
Positive feedback about the experience of Q.C. has circulated through the institution among program-viable inmates. The key reasons behind the positive word of mouth, and the now lengthy waiting list to become enrolled (according to the well mannered student-inmates I spoke with), has first to do with the opportunity of working with ‘such beautiful food.’ This is closely followed by the opportunity of learning a proper trade, and last but not least, experiencing the camaraderie that goes hand in hand with cooking as a team.
To zone in on the powerful through line of the Quentin Cooks Program, CW Magazine approached Dombroski about following the journey of one student inmate in the program, through release from San Quentin, and on to job placement and a new life. Dombroski’s choice candidate for this feature came without hesitation.
At 60, Michael Cooke (aka Yahya), is one of the oldest inmates enrolled in Quentin Cooks 2.0. On the program’s final day, in anticipation of prepping a five course meal for 68 invited guests, Yahya sat listening to Lisa’s careful instruction, looking grateful and focused.
Yahya’s life, from an abusive broken home which lead to juvenile criminal activity, is peppered with incarceration. A former Christian, now Muslim, Yahya credits Quentin Cooks for helping to ‘educate, enlighten, and preserve,’ him towards his future.
(Inset: Student- Inmate, Michael Cooke, a.k.a Yahya)
Yahya, an everyman character, fell prey to drug addiction during his successful career at a recruitment firm. After trying the drug with a friend one night after work just for fun, Yahya quickly spiraled into a dramatic addiction. Desperate for money to support his possessive habit, Cooke was arrested for robbery at the age of 44. Due to his stained previous record from his adolescence, Cooke was given the maximum sentence of 24 years (7 of which at San Quentin.)
Conquering sobriety behind bars, and empowered by a renewed sense of integrity, Yahya nurtured a strong work ethic inside of San Quentin in pursuit of a more positive, educated, and spiritual life. While staying devoted to AA, Cooke accomplished a college degree, and became deeply inspired by the writings of Malcolm X and Alex Haley, who helped breed in him an intense subscription towards discipline and hard work.
When I asked Yahya about his experience with Quentin Cooks, he had this to say: “The first thing you get out of this program are the skills that get you a job in the outside world, but the secondary training you receive, is hope. Getting your hope back is a phenomenal. I really get it that. I get it. That’s something me and the guys say here in the program. ‘We get it.’ Which means ‘getting it,” on a big level.
Michael Cooke (Yahya) is set for release this coming November 16th, 2017. After seven years at San Quentin, (incarcerated 24 years total) he is indeed a new man: wise, kind, and eager to start anew.
Upon release, Cooke has been selected to begin training with Michael Sabella of ServeSafe to become a Food Safety Manager. Despite loving to cook, Cooke shared that it is the precision and discipline of food sanitation and safety that intrigues him.
Watch this space! CW Magazine will reconnect with Quentin Cook’s Lisa Dombroski in our upcoming Q4 Edition (Nov-Jan ’17) to check in on Yahya’s progress within his new found freedom and exciting new occupation.
Much respect and admiration goes out to Dombroski from for her devotion to make a difference and help pave a new future for San Quentin inmates, not eternally criminals, but rather human beings who made negative choices on the road of life, but have proven themselves deserving of a clean slate, hope, and opportunity.
Special thanks to: Lt. Sam Robinson (Public Information Officer San Quentin State Prison)for providing images, and the student-inmates of Quentin Cooks 2.0 who so generously and respectfully provided information on themselves and the The Quentin Cooks Program: Jerome Jackson, Elijah Fejeran, Julio Saca, Darnell Stewart, Freddie Grigsby, Larry Sierengowski, Marcos “Eddie” Landeros, and Michael Cooke.