Elevation Eats: A look inside the culinary work program at the South Lake Tahoe jail | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Elevation Eats: A look inside the culinary work program at the South Lake Tahoe jail

Rae and Troy Matthews
Elevation Eats

Editor's note: This story was originally published in Edible Reno-Tahoe Vol. 8/No. 6. The inmates' last names were withheld out of respect for their privacy.

As the holidays approach, we at Elevation Eats wanted to share one of the most touching stories that we had the privilege to write about this year.

While fine cooking is often praised as an art, it can also be a life-changing skill — a skill that gives hope to the hopeless and voice to the voiceless. Nowhere is that more true than for the inmates in the culinary program at El Dorado County Jail in South Lake Tahoe. Running continuously for 26 years under the guidance of Jeannette Shippee, correctional cook coordinator, inmates in the program discover self-worth while gaining practical, real-world experience.

Getting to the jail's kitchen means walking through a series of dreary and imposing hallways, past psychological hold cells, prisoners on lock-down, and then finally through barred gates. The kitchen, although providing inmates with open access to cutlery, immediately feels like the safest place in the entire facility.

Only the most well behaved inmates are allowed to participate in culinary work detail. Participants are required to prepare all of the day's meals for the rest of the prisoners, the staff and the guards. While it may seem like a great deal of work, the participants consider it a welcome break from the usual monotony of prison life.

These inmates are separated from the general population and given more freedom than the average prisoner. Most of the inmates enter the program for just that, freedom. But almost all come out with a desire to pursue a career in the food industry. Rob, an inmate for three years, has even applied to culinary school.

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"The biggest thing is it is such a great opportunity to learn stuff, you know? Jeannette is such a good influence on us," Rob said. "I came into the kitchen and realized I really love this, and I can do something legal with my life. Something positive."

His fellow inmate, Tony, agrees. "You get caught up in the system … because you never get a chance to learn anything. You're stuck in bad places, and coming here was like a blessing … I just don't care about [my past] anymore … I just can't wait to get home to cook for someone."

So good it's a crime

The program also offers catering to the public, delightfully known as, "So Good It's a Crime." The catering portion of the program was born out of necessity in 2007 on the night of the devastating Angora fire that destroyed a huge swath of the Tahoe Basin and claimed 254 homes. Inmates in the culinary program were set to task preparing meals for firefighters and police officers, as well as those in the evacuation shelter who were hunkered down anxiously waiting for news.

"Whoever needed food, we were there," Shippee says. "It was a really good thing for the inmates to be part of the community."

Since that time, So Good It's A Crime has built a respectable reputation in the area. They are regularly booked to prepare meals for charity events, and have won or placed in several cooking competitions. The hallway outside of the jail's kitchen is lined with ribbons.

"Last year we won first in the salsa competition, first in corn-bread, and I think second or third in chili," Shippee says.

At these fairs and cooking competitions the prisoners are able to interact with the public, which not only helps them to develop customer service skills, but gives them a sense of pride in their work that they had never known.

"To see [the customer's] expressions and interact with the people on that kind of level is a level we are really not used to," Tony said.

Rob agrees, "Just being able to work around people, speak to real people that aren't criminals, it's life experience, whether you want to be a cook when you get out or not."

Hope for the future

After spending years, sometimes decades, in prison, inmates are often released with nothing but freedom — no money, no job and no support structure of any kind. Programs such as these are created to help reduce future recidivism, and, although they can have a profound impact, it will still be an uphill battle for Rob and Tony on the outside. Both admitted they were tremendously apprehensive. Rob has his eye on the Culinary Institute of America, but he is not sure what he will do if he is not accepted.

We were treated to their famous carrot cheesecake and a lemon curd sweetbread. While both were delicious, the real joy was the look on the faces of Rob and Tony as we devoured their day's work. It was bittersweet to see their pride at a job well done while knowing the challenges they will face. All we could do was shake their hands and wish them the best for their futures.

Jeannette Shippee is optimistic for Rob and Tony. After 26 years, she has a keen sense of who might make it and who will probably be back. But she perseveres in her work to offer what few in Rob and Tony's position ever receive: hope and pride in a skill that can change their lives for the better.

Elevation Eats is the brainchild of Rae and Troy Matthews: South Shore locals, Internet enthusiasts, and food-obsessed, Tahoe-loving, annoying-couple down the street. This is their second food-related project. Their first is the blog LustForCooking.com, a celebration of cooking at home. Elevation Eats is dedicated to documenting and promoting the Tahoe food scene with a focus on sustainable living and cultural advancement.