Redemption Through Cooking
Richard K. went from being a successful entertainment lawyer to an inmate at Fort Dix Prison to a pastry chef at award-winning Zahav restaurant all within five years. He credits Philabundance Community Kitchen (PCK) for propelling him to where he is today.
“I don’t think I would have landed on my feet as quickly as I did without PCK.”
In 2011, Richard was sentenced to five years at Fort Dix, a low-security federal prison in New Jersey, after being arrested for manufacturing marijuana. Prison life is extremely regimented; Richard was told when to eat, sleep and exercise, and while he had a bit of autonomy while running the law library, he just did his time and forgot about the real world to make his sentence pass quicker.
In Fall 2014, Philabundance Community Kitchen accepted a small group of nonviolent, incarcerated individuals from Fort Dix into its 14-week culinary vocational training program, as part of a pilot program with partner Connection Training Services (CTS), a partner with the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Richard didn’t know it then, but the collaboration would change his life.
“I loved cooking, and I knew about Philabundance — I knew of their reputation from the city and that they were feeding the hungry and helping with food waste and helping people who needed it. I thought this is a brilliant organization and how could I not be interested in joining the program? And, besides, it would let me get off the compound every day.”
But he didn’t get into the program when he first learned about it.
“They had already selected participants and I had missed the window. There were three people who got in and there were at least 100-125 people who wanted to get in.”
So he waited… and he was accepted into the Spring 2015 class.
The primary goal of this pilot program is to provide current inmates marketable skills they can use when they reenter their community, as well as to reduce likelihood of re-offending and re-entering the prison system (known as recidivism). This goal aligns closely with PCK’s mission to promote the self-sufficiency of low-income women and men by preparing them to work in commercial kitchens… and give those who need it a second chance.
“With the right assistance and right network I knew I’d be able to get my life together – I just needed an opportunity,” Richard said. He wasn’t sure what to expect from PCK, but after a brief stint in the program, he was shocked just how much this program taught him.
“PCK is the real thing. It teaches you as much as you want to learn. All the people involved are serious about the work being taken seriously. I was really surprised by the amount of work, and the practical side of it too, being in the kitchen every day and the classroom every day. It was really cool.”
His PCK classmates were aware that he was at Fort Dix, and rather than being awkward and uncomfortable around him, he felt the others were extremely accepting of his situation. Especially since many had had a tough road prior to PCK, including incarceration.
For Richard, being in the program was the best way to transition back into society. “Prison life is an extremely controlled environment. Going from making no decisions to making decisions about everything is overwhelming. With PCK, you make incremental changes back toward that life you’re accustomed to living, which is really helpful — I can’t stress the importance enough.”
To date, the collaboration has enabled 19 minimum security, non-violent, short-term inmates (those with six months or less remaining in their sentence) the opportunity to attend PCK – and the opportunity for a second chance at life.
“A lot of us have made a mistake and done our time. I think we deserve an equal chance to try to put our lives back together.”