CW gives back in a big way by funding a professional cooking program for soon to be released inmates of San Quentin California State Prison. The program is the brainchild of CW’s very own SF Sales Rep and Former Chef, Lisa Dombroski. Here is the story of Quentin Cooks.
Hostages will not be recognized for bargaining purposes. All inmates, visitors and staff will be informed of this regulation.
(San Quentin Prison, California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3304:)
With the odd elation of someone signing a Release of Liability Form to go bungee jumping, I emailed my signature of consent. If I was to be taken hostage while inside San Quentin Prison covering the Quentin Cooks Event there would be no bargaining to save my sad little life.
While coaching rugby in Marin, CA, in her spare time, Lisa Dombroski, a fireball of vitality, became ever fascinated with San Quentin State Prison, the blot on the otherwise pristine Marin landscape, just off the Richmond Bridge.
Dombroski credits her curious spirit, and early background working with adjudicated and at risk youth, as the source of her intense urge to get inside the thick brick walls of the oldest, most notorious penitentiary, in California.
The thrust of the program would be to train the men to cook like professionals
Ever the action taker, Dobrowski combined ten years experience as a chef (Jose Garces’ Amada, Noble, Kimpton Restaurants, Square 1682, Grand Cafe,`) and previous work with troubled youth, to ignite the idea of creating a professional cooking program for prisoners of San Quentin Prison. The thrust of the program would be to train the men to cook like professionals and conclude with providing jobs for interested and capable candidates once released from prison.
Dombroski ran this idea by friend and fellow rugby player Denali Giuseppe, who heads up a weekly music program at San Quentin. Giuseppe encouraged Lisa to pitch her concept to San Quentin Program Facilitator Steve Emerick. After meeting with Helaine Melnitaur, S.Q. Program Developer and Quentin Cooks co-founder, Lisa’s program was given the green light.
With S.Q.S.P on board to make Quentin Cooks the 199th of the preexisting 199 programs currently offered to its inmates, Lisa met up with Chefs Warehouse S.F Vice President Bruce Luong and Sales Manager Mathew Mosebrook to talk about funding.
Finding Lisa’s passion for the program contagious, Mosebrook took the pitch to CW Corporate. CW President, Christopher Pappas and Robyn Batz, Head of Marketing, were immediately drawn to the multifaceted humanitarian aspect of Lisa’s idea.
Chefs Warehouse signed on to provide all funding for equipment and supplies for the Quentin Cooks program; one of the largest ongoing Chefs Warehouse humanitarian contributions to date.
With the program a-go, Lisa invited new CW Sales Rep. Eric Hollis to function as her active partner and fellow teacher of Quentin Cooks. An Argentinean native, with impressive chef credits, (EPIC Roasthouse, El Raigon, Sushi Ran, Aziza, and Insalata from the Bay Area and Las Huazas in Buenos Aires, Argentina,) Hollis, a devout advocate of ‘giving back,’ jumped into the project no questions asked.
The pair hit it off immediately. Lisa and I are both go getters. We don’t bring our egos or drama into what we do, Hollis shared.
Joining the support, VegiWorks Inc. graciously donated fresh fruit and vegetables and Michael Sabella of ServSafe signed on to train the students to become ServSafe Certified; making the men ready for work directly following release.
As an extra highlight, exceptional Chef Tu, Michael Phu (Chez Panisse, Quince, Acquerello, Daniel Boulud, Breslin, Gotham Bar & Grill and Gramercy Tavern,) volunteered to assist in the final week running up to the Quentin Cooks, Final Course Event. A relatively young, but up and coming chef in the Bay Area, Chef Tu was a great professional for the inmates to meet and connect with.
Instructed by: CW Sales Reps and Chefs, Lisa Dombroski and Eric Hollis.
Location: H Unit’s Kitchen and Cafeteria
When: Monday mornings from 8:00 am to 12 pm. July 6th to October 10th 2016.
‘You can teach anyone who is willing to learn. You may not teach them exactly what they want to learn, but you can teach them that they CAN learn. This is everything. These guys have been overlooked, not given the same opportunities in life as most people. I wanted to use the privilege that I have to give back more powerfully.’ Lisa Dombroski
In an interview with CW Magazine, Lisa Dombroski offers her unique perspective on Quentin Cooks.
CW: What was the main mission of the program going in?
LD: To be honest, it wasn’t until the first day that I knew what was going to happen. After taking over an hour to get through security, we found out our equipment hadn’t been delivered. We just had to say, ‘This is who we are.’ We knew right away that we were going to have to do a lot of shooting from the hip. But this in itself is a valuable lesson. You do a lot of shooting from the hip in professional kitchens as well.
CW: What do you attribute to the program’s success?
LD: Ultimately it came down to five basic principles: Have pride in your work. Keep your work area clean. Take care of belongings. Give your best. Focus on teamwork. Working in a kitchen is great life training.
CW: Were the inmates what you expected?
LD: Not to be cliche, but there was no socio-economical status difference between us. The program was very humanizing for them and rewarding for us. The pride that they took in their work was amazing to see. Nothing connects people more than food.
CW: What was the biggest challenge?
LD: Eric and I tackled everything together. He was the rock. The biggest challenge was where do we stop teaching? We wanted them to embrace what they were learning and to grow and be be challenged. We wanted to set them up for a career in the culinary world outside of their current circumstance. The program doesn’t work like any other in San Quentin. The powers that be let the program have its own personality, this was crucial to its success.
CW: Many people I’ve spoken with get plugged in about the idea of the inmates working with knives. Any response to that?
LD: This was a challenge from the get go for me. Using a knife is an art. Using one that is tethered to a metal table is something completely different.
Having previously signed off on the S.Q.S.P dress code agreement dictating acceptable attire for visitors, I stood by the East Gate of San Quentin Prison looking distinctly undynamic.
Gripping my approved camera, pen and notepad, I leaned awkwardly against the red brick wall next the security office, exchanging small talk with the surprisingly cheerful guard on duty. Yep! 800 security guards work here around the clock. He shared. My shift is just about done if Officer Smith ever gets here.
I was nervous and excited. Because phones are not permitted for visitors, I was also paranoid I was at the wrong entrance. To my relief, Lisa Dombroski and and Eric Hollis drove up in a car bursting with boxes full of ingredients for the event, now only three hours away.
In a flurry of momentum, they flashed their Brown Card Clearance Badges. Their loaded car was waved through like they had worked at the prison forever. Lisa, looking half rufian rock star, half professional athlete, greeted me with her customary swell of energy. Hi! Get in! Get in. Good to see you! I tell you it’s a whirlwind today! We’ve been here since 7:00 am. We basically need to make a miracle happen in the next couple hours!
Within the pale yellow painted walls topped with heaping swirls of barbed wire, I followed Lisa and Eric, through another security checkpoint that led to the open yard of H Unit of San Quentin Prison where a smattering of inmates sat talking and smoking. Having lived the majority of my adult life in the urban jungles of New York City and London U.K, I strived to achieve my, ‘I’m not intimidated face.’ Eyes down, shoulders back.
For a second the men seemed stern, almost dangerous.
As we entered the cafeteria and kitchen of H Unit, the nine Quentin Cooks student inmates looked over in our direction. There was a quiet tension in the room. For a second the men seemed stern, almost dangerous. Lisa spoke, cutting through what I later realized was intense pre-show jitters: Hey guys, listen up. Before we get back to work. We have something for you!
Lisa and Eric pulled specially made Quentin Cooks aprons out of a large box, each emblazoned with one of the inmates names. The men’s faces lit up with sublime gratitude. It was an emotional moment to witness right off the bat. My ‘I’m not intimidated face,’ gave way to my ‘Genuinely Moved,’ face.
These are professional cooks aprons with your names on them. Lisa announced. You guys have earned these. Try them on! We have permission for you to wear them tonight and then they will be held for you and given back on the day you’re released.
The energy in the room had shifted to more excited than anxious. Eric Hollis addressed the group. Okay guys, we have a lot to do in the next couple hours so let’s get to it. Everyone knows what they should be working on. There’s a breakdown for prep of the menu taped up in the kitchen if you need to take a look at it. Let’s get to work!
In the hours that followed, I was surprised by how professional and focused the men functioned in the role of cooks. I also did not expect them to be as eager to share their individual stories and experiences of the Quentin Cooks Program.
The first, James Seegers, a.k.a New York, 62, due to get out in just a couple weeks, (Halloween to be exact, October 31st, 2016) approached, shook my hand and warmly introduced himself. With a job slated for him in Sacramento, New York spoke about what he felt he had gotten from the program, all the while prepping the Java Lump Crab Cakes.
I’ve gone from cooking cocaine and measuring heroin, (which is actually a lot of hard work, just in a bad category,) to learning how to really cook. Now 28 years later, I’m transferring my street smarts to positive work ethics. This makes me feel like I’m doing something right. And it feels so good. I spent a lot of my life doing the wrong thing.
The conversation with New York was interrupted by another student- inmate Charles Givan a.k.a Mr. Fase, 47, who wanted to offer some rather good ideas for photo opportunities for CW Magazine. He led me outside where Lisa was distributing ingredients from the Quentin Cooks ‘hut.’
Kept under lock and key, the outdoor metal hut, with a large sign boasting Quentin Cooks hung on the side, housed practically everything needed to support a professional kitchen, sans plates, glassware, or utensils which are forbidden. The large kitchen knives had already been checked out as per protocol, and chained to the prep tables for the men to use.
Lisa shared that due to prison rules the menus for Quentin Cooks lessons and the Final Course must exist of mainly finger foods, being that forks, knives and plates are not permitted.
Back inside the kitchen things were heating up. James Mathews, a very polite, soft spoken 22 yr. old, serving four years for domestic robbery, stood at the long silver prep table cutting green beans. He offered, I’ve learned a lot of cooking strategies in the program. I’ve really enjoyed the hard work. It’s actually been fun. The program has definitely opened new doorways for me.
Next to Matthews, stood Joshua Cortez, also prepping beans. At 23, his completely tattooed blue and black face dramatically contradicts his innocent and enthusiastic spirit. Joshua shared, I was surprised by all the fine details and camaraderie. Lisa and Eric are great because they teach us differently according to our individual cooking backgrounds and experience.
Michael Tadio, 29, who will be released from S.Q.S.P in March 2017, chimed in as he quartered small tomatoes, The fact that the chefs take the time out of their day to come here and teach us something new is amazing. They have reminded me how much I love cooking. Now I want to do it as a career.
The conversation was then intercepted by Lias, (birth name, Leevester Hall), a 28 year old self confessed future barber from Marin City, C.A, who had a word or two to say about needing a support system when he gets out of prison. When your mother is a crack addict and your father is a crack addict you find yourself emulating the role models that you have; all the people around you who take the easy way out. Whatever you experience at home is what shapes you into the man you’re going to be. I need positive role models to emulate. This will help to keep me on the right path.
Running short on time, Lisa brought me over to where the program’s stand out student,
Sunny (Sunshine) Prado, 45, was prepping a wide variety of fresh herbs to be incorporated in the dinner.
Lisa shared that Prado, due to be released next March, had exhibited a great deal of natural culinary talent and focus. Prado, who is slated to work at a food forward brewing company in Oakland after release, (and who will also attend the next session of Quentin Cooks in January,) shared: It’s been a real honour to be in this program, a real opportunity. I’ve learned so much about teamwork and focusing on getting the job done the right way. I’ve found it very interesting and enjoyable.
Separating cilantro leaves from their stems, a bright faced young man named Jesse Smith, a.k.a (his rapping name,) Jesse James, 28, up for release in 2017, confessed that due to his serious artistic aspirations as a rapper and an actor, he sees his cooking training more as a potential way to support him while he pursues his passion for the arts. A few minutes later he requested I also include that the chief reason he does so many programs at San Quentin is to make his mother proud of him, to show her that he can change.
Joel McCarter, late 50’s, due to be released March 9th, 2017, feeling the fatigue that comes from having to prep a large amount of crab cakes, took a moment to talk about his forthcoming release this March: I’m looking forward to it, but I am also anxious. It’s a big change. I need someone to stand in my corner. Earning my families trust again for the second time is going to be a difficult. I used to always say doing the right things was too hard. I wanted the easy way. Now I know it takes work and I’m ready for it.
The biggest misconception about convicted men and women is that we cannot change. Once a criminal always a criminal. This is simply not true. But we need support. We need a real chance.
I’ve loved everything about the Quentin Cook’s’ experience, except the smelly aged cheeses. They could have kept those to themselves.
Time had flown. The sultry aroma of Allen Brother’s Angus on the indoor grill permeated the air. Large pans of scalloped potatoes lined the silver counters ready to be placed in the oven. Small plates of deviled eggs and breadsticks rolled with a sliver of salmon were being arranged carefully, and the crab cakes were finally ready for the fryer.
Lisa called my name. It was time for me to join the event’s guests back at the East Gate.
I said goodbye and good luck to the men. I looked forward to enjoying the feast they were preparing. Just two hours prior I had viewed them as potentially dangerous convicts. Now they occurred as an affable group of men who were eager to prove themselves, and transform their lives, by creating a restaurant quality feast.
The Final Course Event
San Quentin California State Penitentiary, is a surprisingly dynamic place. Besides the 700 ‘condemned,’ prisoners who occupy the high security area of the prison and potentially await the death penalty by Lethal Injection, (now on hold in California, but being fought in legislation,) the other 3500 inmates are free to roam the prison grounds when not sequestered to their 8ft by 12 ft cells for sleeping.
The guest group, consisting of Chefs Warehouse employees and Dombroski’s close friends and family, including her exceedingly proud parents Carol and Richard (who works at Wake County Jail in North Carolina where there is only one religious based program available to the inmates,) were permitted to take a peek inside one of the small living spaces during the Quentin Cooks Event’s pre dinner prison tour led by Program Director Steve Emerick.
Officials from the prison including Warden, Ronald Davis, and San Quentin Chief Public Information Officer, Samuel Robinson would join the attending guests at the event dinner following the tour.
Inmates milled casually among us, curious of our group of visitors, as we carefully walked through their domain. Looking into the small cell where two men spend their lives, I felt a sense of shame and embarrassment, prying into someone’s reality whose life had gone distinctly awry.
As the tour progressed, we marveled at the spirit and artistry of creative inmates, past and present, apparent in many areas throughout the grounds. Passing North Hall, a large auditorium at S.Q, where Johnny Cash recorded his album At San Quentin live on February 24, 1969, we were led inside the prison art room. Overflowing with works of beauty and expression, we stood in awe of the undeniable talents of many of the inmates.
Following this, Emerick guided us to the cafeteria where the awesome gigantic murals of the now famous artist Santos bely the vast walls where the convicts eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Also, apparent in holy makeshift shrines peppering the vast outside yard, the evidence of devout faith; a boundless sea of religions.
Above us, on steel walking frames, armed guards watched the movement on the ground with an eery steel like focus. Where we walked on the main level, guards carrying pepper spray guns and retractable wands maintained a sense of dominant control, ready for anything.
Though I kept my eyes down as we walked through different groups of men, I never felt frightened. Walking next to me, Lisa’s friend Denali, who teaches music weekly at the prison, received many cheerful hello’s and shout outs from passing prisoners excited to see her and bring up highlights from the last time they’d played music together. Their faces bright and often handsome; a distant glimmer of hope in their eyes. These weren’t the hardened criminals I expected to encounter. These were not monsters past hope.
Now and then, as we neared H Unit for the big event, a lone inmate would pass us. I’ll never forget the magnetic pull I felt extending from them, like I could hear them saying, Please see me. Please say hello. Validate that I exist to the outside free world. The gratitude they offered in the form of a shy ‘Hello,’ was palpable; a world of communication in three seconds.
Inside H Unit’s Cafeteria the steel circular tables with attached stools had been set with paper napkins and spoons. The Quentin Cooks students proudly wearing their signature stark white chef aprons immediately took drink orders from the guests offering, lemonade, ice tea or water in served in plastic cups.
The basic quality of the dinnerware and lack of ambiance was overshadowed by the overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment in the room. We were asked to take our seats, four to a table, where we found our Quentin Cooks, Final Course Menus waiting for us.
The room excitedly awaited the sumptuous, six course dinner which included: Breadsticks with 55 Silver Salmon and a Deviled Egg, Quentin Cobb Salad with little gem lettuce, avocado, scallion, cherry tomatoes, and creamy herb dressing, Organic Country Bread donated by Peter Hughs and Pizzaaiolo, Shellfish Duo, using CW Right Shrimp, and Java Lump Crab Cakes, remoulade and chives, Meat and Potatoes with Allen Brothers Angus, scalloped potato and seared late summer vegetables and finishing with Quentin Biscuits’ and Berries.
Exhausted and elated Lisa Dombroski, finally able to sit down for a moment after the epic day of preparing the event’s menu with Eric Hollis and their cook trainees, marveled at how beautifully the evening had gone.
We created the menu with the guys. We wanted to create dishes that they had learned in the program, dishes that they really knew how to make well to take some of the pressure off. Eric and I are so proud of them for how they focused today, how they really worked together. I really can’t see how it could have gone any better. I’m blown away. I’m already looking forward to starting up the program again in January, Quentin Cooks, The Second Course.
The energy in the room following the perfectly executed meal, served with aplomb, had a distinct air of recognition to it. The student inmates were invited to sit amongst the event guests at the tables for dessert and to hear brief congratulatory speeches. It was clear they had learned a lot. Many of them they had received a new passion and probable future occupation. Wearing their bespoke aprons and joining in spirited conversation with the dynamic group of people from the outside world was uplifting, if not transforming.
The attending guests had also learned a lesson transformable in nature. People can change. We can make horrible mistakes in life and choose a better path when we know better. With support and opportunity we can rise above.
Norman Vincent Peale said, Change your thoughts and you change your world.
From an inexplicable urge to break down barriers and make a difference, Lisa Dombroski (and Eric Hollis,) are changing lives at the prison by the Bay, one Quentin Cooks course at a time.
To be continued.
*It should be noted that Lisa Dombroski’s father Richard, who works at Wake County Jail in North Carolina, healing from a recent knee surgery and nervous for his daughter’s ultimate safety while conducting her program, was surprised with the quality programs provided to San Quentin inmates. He shared that at Wake County Jail the only program offered focuses on religion.
Photo Info: Quentin Cooks Instructors, Lisa Dombroski and Eric Hollis and student-inmates prepping The Quentin Cooks Event.