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DSA In the News

Recipe for success

Published on 8/18/2010

“Knife! Knife!”

The emphatic warning rang through the kitchen of the women’s correctional facility as a woman with neck tattoos peeking out of chef whites hurried from chopping block to stove.

What would otherwise could be cause for alarm in the jail on Tuesday served more as a rallying cry, as four culinary teams of inmates and law enforcement officials squared off to see who could pack the most punch in their jambalaya, infuse sweetness in their pecan pie and create just the right amount of flakiness in their black pepper biscuits.

“Hot! Hot! Behind you!”

The teams, having traded in their jail orange for crisp chef whites and tall hats bearing their names and team number, worked quickly while remembering to warn others to watch for scorching pans and sharp knives.

Forget the stereotypes of poor jail food. The fare on the menu Tuesday included artfully arranged fruit salad and balsamic dressing poured over cabbage salad. Scooped-out pineapples held a medley of fruit and salmon sat on a bed of baby potatoes and sautéed corn.

The chefs were no slouches, either. The cook-off showcased skills taught in a collaborative program between the Sheriff’s Office and JobTrain, the Menlo Park-based program that offers vocational training.

The culinary aspect, headed by Chef Adam Weiner, began as an idea approximately four years ago when Chef Elihu Kittell of the jail realized female inmates needed something to do. The male inmates had programs but the women were lacking. Coupled with the women’s jail kitchen being shut down after a fire and food preparation moved to the men’s facility, there was a void that needed filling. Not only does the program keep inmates busy during incarceration, Kittell said it boosts their confidence and gives them skills that they can carry back with them in the outside world. Several enroll full time at JobTrain and a number have made the leap into a cooking career. Important for Kittell, the students move forward rather than back to jail.

“In two-and-a-half years, not one has come back,” Kittell said, while observing his pet project culminate in the frenzy around him.

Each team included a guest chef — District Attorney Jim Fox, Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, Sheriff’s Capt. John Quinlan and Deputy Chief Probation Officer Ken Pesso — and program participants both from the jail and JobTrain. Each group had to create six servings of any salad and fruit dish but were required to follow recipes for jambalaya, salmon, green pea salad, black pepper biscuits and pecan pie.

They were also issued rules, mainly no sabotage and have fun. “Remember this is supposed to be a team building exercise, not an audition for Hell’s Kitchen,” the sheet read.

Gordon Ramsey aside, the teams were working for a win alongside the fun.

As Amelia chopped parsley, Vicky whisked dressing so fast her arm was a blur. Angela did some final chopping of fruit for her salad and in every corner recipes were checked and double-checked. Team One, headed by Fox, was certain their secret weapon, a raspberry vinaigrette, spelled victory but Pesso’s Team Three was opting for a coleslaw rather than Waldorf salad. His suggestion for where to place the jam next to the biscuit was dismissed by his teammates and he figured they were right.

The controlled chaos was punctuated by time checks and Weiner occasionally stopped a plate before it headed out.

“Take the stem off,” he told one chef, sending back the fruit salad.

Amid the husking of corn, the peeling of shrimp and grilling of vegetables, floor judges circled and jotted scores on mise en place and cleanliness. One judge eyed a pan of cooked salmon sitting on a bottom rack near Team One. Time was almost over and “what were they going to do with it?” she asked before seeing Fox scoop it up for some last-minute arranging.

Later, the food would be scored on color contrast, texture, garnish and creativity.

With that in mind, one chef sawed down a paper cup into an impromptu small container while another used a plastic spoon as a jam holder.

Presentation counted as Team Four member Quinlan noted, curling butter into balls and wiping jam from plates.

“This is OK. I’ve seen it on the Food Network,” he joked.

He also formed his biscuits into hearts instead of the traditional circle.

“It gives a little extra love,” said Quinlan, who wasted no opportunity to proclaim victory before the judging.

And perhaps it was the love that put Quinlan’s team — dubbed “The Fantastic Four”— in first place.

Either that, or the salmon.

Assistant Sheriff Tricia Sanchez cited the fish, baked instead of fried, as the one with the best texture.

And in the end, Team Two which included Jacobs Gibson, was undone by the peas. Or rather, the lack of them.

Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, a judge alongside Sanchez, Judge Stephen Hall and Sheriff Greg Munks, said the team forgot the ingredient — a major no-no in the rules.

Team Two came in second, followed by Team One and Team Three.

As Team One placed second, the members of Team Four realized their victory and shocked faces broke into smiles.

“I just can’t believe it! Everybody was talking about Team Two so I thought they had it,” said Laura Engman who put her special touch on the team’s servings of jambalaya and fruit salad.

Hugging teammate Amilia Otis and her first place medal, Engman said she might even sleep with it on.

Both women said the program has been a joy and hope to continue cooking once they finish their time. Both have children — Engman three and Otis six — so the skills will definitely be handy.

The program, and the win, also gave them something else.

“I want my children to be proud of me,” Engman said.