San Mateo County Transitional Facility teaches inmates how to cook

Chef Elihu Kittell and Chef Adam Weiner teach a weekly culinary class for inmates at the San Mateo Transitional Facility. (Photo: Amanda Schwab)

“Use that with the bread crumbs, roll the pork in it,” Chef Elihu Kittell explained calmly, showing his students how to prepare rosemary pork covered with crispy bread crumbs. Also on the day’s menu: roasted peppered pork stuffed with yams and sweet-and-sour sauce with rice.

It’s the type of lesson you might find at some of San Francisco’s fine culinary schools, but the venue and the students make this class different: Chef Kittell is teaching a select group of inmates from the San Mateo County jail.

Kittell came up with the idea three years ago, when he was studying at The Culinary Academy in San Francisco and working as the lead chef for the jail. He noticed that “the female inmates just did not have anything to do, and they had a higher recidivism rate than the men.”

Would a culinary program help the women transition back into everyday life? he wondered.

Kittell then spoke with longtime friend Adam Weiner, chef for the work furlough program in Redwood City, about the possibility of establishing a class at the San Mateo County Transitional Facility. Through learning to cook, the chefs agreed, men and women could build self-esteem and trust, develop teamwork skills and see the value of a strong work ethic.

After extensive planning and nearly a year of persuading the county Board of Supervisors, Kitell and Weiner won approval for their program. The class would be organized by Job Train, a nonprofit vocational training and placement center, and meet once a week.

January will mark the program’s one-year anniversary. “Elihu is the unsung hero,” Weiner said. “He is the reason this program exists.”

The inmates are screened by the county Sheriff’s Office and corrections staff prior to being selected for the class and placed in the Transitional Facility. Two graduates of the program, Angel and Hugo, agreed to be interviewed for this article; they requested that their last names not be published.

Angel, who was in jail for stealing items from a department store, said Kittell and Weiner helped her discover a passion for cooking. After her release from the Transitional Facility, she continued to study and now dreams of opening a restaurant.

“It started out with Chef Kittell’s class, and then my expectations just kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. “Chef Weiner inspired me to continue learning at Job Train. … He puts a lot of time into his students.”

The male inmates go through a similar screening and selection process. Their criminal history and behavior while in custody are examined. If selected, they are placed in the men’s Minimum Security Transitional Facility.

Hugo was one of the first men to participate in the culinary class. While taking part in the jail’s Transitioning Animals into Loving Settings (TAILS) program and learning to cook, he also became interested in a solar installation class. After his release, he got a job at a solar installation company, and he tutors inmates in the solar program during his free time.

For Hugo, the culinary class was the starting point. “I’ve probably made about 80 percent” of the recipes, he said. “The fried calamari was my favorite.”

In the future, Job Train and the San Mateo County Transitional Facility are hoping to offer cooking classes more than once a week and expand the program to further support inmates after their release, to keep them from becoming repeat offenders.

“When I don’t see them in the morning, that’s the reward,” Kittell said.

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