Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Le Menu

Today was the lunch at the prison for the culinary arts program. Alma, Barb and I (Alma is the director of the inmate college program, Barb is the professor of the speech class that I guest spoke to) were seated at a small table to one side of the cafeteria area. We got the full treatment - a table cloth and plastic flowers and even individual plastic silverware. That is like being at the Ritz compared to the normal conditions for the inmates.

All of the culinary class group got involved; one inmate served as our waiter, the inmate that invited us as chef, etc. Like any fine establishment, once we had our drinks (water), the chef came out from the kitchen to introduce himself and see if we had any special requests. It was clear that this coming out and greeting "customers" was still a bit of a surprising experience for the chef.

The culinary menu for the day featured an international theme, so we could choose from the French, Moroccan, Italian, or Greek themed meals. We chose French with a sampler of the Italian. It was a hard choice to make since they all sounded so good.

We began with an appetizer of Lobster Bisque which was really tasty. Of course it was made to sound a lot less tasty on the menu because of the state mandated list of ingredients. Somehow lobster bisque seems tastier than lobster meat, green onions, vegetable oil, flour, milk, half and half, white pepper, and salt sounds.

Then came the main course - Sole Amandine with potato puffs, asparagus, lemon, and drawn butter. The almond crusting on the sole was fantastic and the potato puffs were so light that I had to verify that they were really made of potatoes. None of the potatoes I cook ever turn out that tasty and light!

We had a great time and enjoyed good conversation as we ate. All of us thought the food was very good, although a lot richer than our normal lunchtime choices. As we finished, the members of the program serving as waiters took away the dishes and then brought out our desert: Crème Brûlée. Talk about ending a meal with over-the-top richness. Of course, the state mandated description was a bit less appetizing: whipped cream, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla bean, brown sugar.

After the meal, we were allowed to tour the kitchen and congratulate the chef. That in and of itself is interesting because the kitchen is also the production kitchen for the prison. So the culinary arts program people also serve as the cooks for the prison operation. As they are learning fine cuisine, they are also learning everything from short order cooking to running a large eating establishment. Inmates go through being in charge of ordering, inventory, menus, preparation, catering, etc in the course of the program. Given that the prison has close to 3000 inmates and staff eating 3 meals every day, the program participants get a thorough grounding in running an eatery. In addition, the program does a lot of catering and custom baking for community non-profit groups to help pay for the overhead of running the program.

One of the more amazing differences between the prison kitchen and a normal restaurant kitchen is the fact that a couple of walls are filled with hooks and painted outlines of every utensil. Each silhouette has a number painted in it and the corresponding number etched in the utensils. That is so that every piece of metal and plastic can be accounted for before one shift of inmates leaves the kitchen and another comes in. Same kind of controls only stricter go for knives and ... The end result is an absolutely spotless kitchen with no drawers anywhere. It seems to work well to prevent the raw materials for shivs to "walk" out into the cell blocks. The same concern is why all the silverware is plastic. (And even then the plastic silverware is accounted for in the inmate serving areas.)

After we congratulated the chef, it was time to begin the journey back out to the front gate. It involves going through two different security areas and exercise yards and enjoying a stroll under some of the gun towers. Given it was time for several of the cell blocks to come out and enjoy some sun, we were basically walking through a sea of inmates. It is always amusing to watch that interaction. The inmates all know that coming too near someone wearing a red badge like ours is grounds for immediate strip search and confinement. It makes one feel like a leper must have felt in the old days. It is also interesting because inmates in the blue pants are currently demerit free (i.e. no recent "misbehavior"), whereas the ones in orange are currently under restriction for recent problems. Alma would point out this inmate or that one in orange and sadly say that they would not be able to continue in the college program next term - they must be demerit free to even be considered for attendance each term.

(I need to remember to write a thank you note - to Alma - since any contact directly with an inmate by sending a thank you is a violation of the program guidelines. Then Alma will convey the thanks to the inmates involved.)

At long last we reached the gate, turned in our badges, had our arms scanned to verify we had the appropriate ultraviolet stamps proving us to be visitors, then exited through the metal scanners. Got a chance to say hello to one of the associate wardens, one of the chaplains, and several of the guards that I recognized as well.

So what did you do for lunch today?

P.S. For the curious, here are the four menu themes:

Lobster Bisque
Sole Amandine with Potato Puffs and Asparagus
Crème Brûlée

Batin Jaan Zalad
B'Stella Cornish Game Hens on a Bed of Spicy Couscous with Roasted Root Vegetable
Coconut Cake

Tomato and Mozzarella Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette
Shrimp Marcella
Two Way garlic Bread with Basil Pesto
Cannoli Cake with White Chocolate Butterflies

Cilantro Beef Soup
Greek Plate (Rice with Pistachio and Almond; Served with Beef Tips and Vegetables)
Dolmadakia with Tzatzikia Sauce


  1. That was really fascinating. They have quite the system set up in that kitchen. I really enjoyed reading about this.

  2. What an interesting experience. The food sounds great!

  3. Really interesting opportunity. And you wrote it so well. Food sounds incredible too.


You know you want to ... so just do it!!!

Related Posts Widget for Blogs by LinkWithin