From Prison Life to Chef Knife
From Prison Life to Chef Knife is a first person account by Chef Cody. He candidly recounts his transition from incarcerated prisoner to professional chef.
Inside the penitentiary there’s really not much of choice of what you can eat. You can get the nasty grub that is served in the cafeteria. Or you can order food from the canteen. Now, let me remind you that prison is extremely strict. You can’t just have your family send in meals. Unless that is, you are approved for a food visit. Then your family and friends can bring in food from your favorite outside eatery or you can enjoy some home-made cooking. But items that are allowed in are extremely limited. Bones that can be used as weapons — that is, sharpened and turned into a shank (prison knife), are off limits.
Now you may ask, how are we able to cook? Canteens are our prison’s personal grocery store where some ingredients can be purchased. You can buy milk, sodas, condiments, etc. Things not sold can be obtained by trading a pack of cigarettes for something stolen from the kitchen by a cafeteria worker. Whenever inmates got together to make meals, it usually took 10 to 20 inmates to chip in. Canteen is like gold. I’ve seen people get stabbed or assaulted over snack cakes.
Every utensil in prison is plastic. We couldn’t have anything metal. In order to cut, we would use our State ID as a cutting utensil. Or if we were really lucky we might find a razor blade or a piece of metal we could turn into a knife. Getting caught with these meant going to the hole or catching another charge. We did have plastic sporks we could buy from the canteen for 75 cents and plastic bowls. Everything, including coffee mugs, were transparent so we couldn’t hide anything illegal.
After being released, I attended culinary school. There were no classes in prison for cooking. However, if you worked in the cafeteria serving thousands of inmates, you did get a certificate. And we did have people from the outside that helped us cook. (And kept a close eye on us to make sure we didn’t steal any knives or food from the kitchen.) Prisons don’t really care if we get sick from food. We believed they fed us horse feed for breakfast, calling it cracked wheat. I am glad to be out where I’ve learned about food safety and foodborne illnesses. I use these lessons every day where I work now. I enjoy where I work, cooking steaks and lobster. I’m still young. Some advice I can give is don’t just work in one place. Gain experience. Learn Italian, French, Czech cuisines. Cooking isn’t just cooking. It is a form of art and science. You have to present your work to attract the customer’s eye. Make the ingredients blend so well that their palates go on a roller coaster ride of exciting flavors. My main goal is to make myself known for what I do well. And bring whoever I’m cooking for back for more.
In jail, all you have is time. I have been cooking since I was a kid. In prison I found that all the cafeteria food is horrible. We had to use whatever we could find to make the perfect meal. We made pizzas, cakes, pastas, you name it. We had no grill, toaster ovens, etc. Just two microwaves shared with fifty other inmates in a pod.
Even though I have done some time, and people may look down on me and other inmates, we still love food like anyone else. Inmates will do whatever it takes to get the right nutrients we need to survive each and everyday. The incarcerated have no choice but to be smart and work with what we have.
Just know that each one of us is human, and humans make mistakes. Hopefully my story can help someone stay out of that life I once lived. If you want meat loaf that looks like actual break pads from a tire and has no flavor, prison will suit you. If you want good steaks, I’d say stay out. Take care and enjoy cooking.