With the sounds of pots and pans clanging and knives chopping in the background, an all-female kitchen staff can be heard calling out information to one another to get each component of their meal completed on time.
Unique to this situation is that those kitchen knives are chained to the tables and a female corrections officer is standing guard, carefully observing each woman. That was the scene recently at the Niagara County Jail in Lockport, during the last session in a six-week series of cooking classes.
Niagara Falls Chef Bobby Anderson and his staff have been teaching the female inmates how to cook, but beyond the delicious smells wafting through the jail kitchen as a result of their efforts, those in the program say they are learning about more than just how to make cheesecake or pizza or breakfast foods.
Anderson, who achieved some national fame when he appeared on the popular cooking show “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2008, returned to the region and started an innovative cooking program designed to change lives. He calls his company F Bites — Food Based Interventions with Technology, Energy & Science — and has created classes designed to teach teamwork, build confidence, and introduce the job skills which lead to a better life, while teaching a variety of cooking techniques which might be transformed into a job one day.
Anderson’s program was brought into the Niagara County Jail by Orleans Niagara BOCES, which has already held five such series for male inmates.
The recent class for nine female inmates was the first time the sessions were offered to women.
“Historically speaking, women are supposed to be more difficult to deal with in the jail,” says Charles Diemert, Literacy Zone coordinator at Orleans/Niagara BOCES and director of adult continuing education programs. “We were extremely pleasantly surprised that was absolutely not the case.”
Once the classes began, it was clear that the program was making an impact on the women’s lives and not just because of the wonderful foods they were learning to create in the prison kitchen.
Diemert says, “There is something extraordinary about the way the women approached this as a team. They served each other instead of serving themselves and when there was food left over, the men would always do their best to eat it all or try to find a way to take it with them, while the women consistently worried about everyone else.”
The women even fed a corrections officer one evening after learning he had no dinner. Delighted by their generosity, he said, “Jokingly, I told my boss we should run women’s programs exclusively.”
Classes typically begin with Anderson giving an inspirational talk on a belief in self and one’s own abilities. He shows videos of professional kitchens and what goes on behind the scenes, including clips from his stint on “Hell’s Kitchen,” and then asks them to apply what they just learned. Then the women go into the kitchen and practice working together to produce a meal, which they later are able to sit together and enjoy before going back to their cells for the night.
The inmates involved, incarcerated for mainly drug-related crimes and petit larceny, not only surpassed the expectations of their instructors, they surpassed the expectations they had of themselves. With a newfound belief in their abilities, it appears the participants might be willing to accept the idea of becoming something more.
Ella Anderson, an inmate from Buffalo and mom of four, said the class has expanded her sense of self. “It got me to try new foods. No one ever showed me. I didn’t think I had it in me. I feel like I can cook it.”
Patricia Harper, 49, a mother of two and grandmother of two from Buffalo, is serving time for petit and grand larceny. She hopes to be released in October. She explained that she was disabled from cancer and on disability and that she stole things because “I wanted to take care of my kids and my grandkids.”
Harper, who received a culinary education at Buffalo’s Emerson High School and worked in the restaurant business previously, is looking to improve her life.
When she heard about the cooking class she was quick to enroll. “This is the best experience,” she said, adding that the cooking class has inspired her to continue her education. “When I leave here, I might want to go to ECC.”
Andrea Grace of North Tonawanda violated her probation after being charged with endangering the welfare of a child, which she said was due to her heroin addiction. Her baby daughter is now 2 years old, and when she is released at the end of July she intends to turn her life around. “I plan to work on my addiction and my recovery first,” she said. Then, she’s hoping to find a job in the food industry.
Inmate Searcy Fields, jailed for a year and six months on drug charges, said the class has given her confidence in herself. “I know what I can do. I can do something without doing illegal stuff. I’m capable. I can invest in something good,” she said.
Diemert says the classes are a little bit like “Hell’s Kitchen,” in that chaos is created in the kitchen while the chef in charge demands communication, with a quick “Yes, chef” to questions he fires out about timing and preparation. Teamwork is imperative to get to the end goal of a meal created by all.
“He tries to make it like the job market as a whole,” Diemert explained. “Your job is to do your job. You don’t need to be combative, you don’t need to be rude, you have a job to do and you do it,” he said of Anderson’s teaching techniques.
Diemert said that when he hears from employers they tell him what they want from employees is simple. “They tell us they want employees to ‘be on time and work hard, that’s really all we care about.’”
He says the F-Bites program at the jail is “an interesting way to drive those skills home in a fun setting.”
Diemert added there is already talk of running another women’s cooking session at the jail. “We might actually run it again in a couple of of months,” he said.