South Lake Tahoe Jail’s culinary program teaches job skills
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Inmates James Tucker, Jeremy Paxiao and Steve Klug whipped up dinner for the El Dorado County’s South Lake Tahoe Jail population Monday, Sept. 21, including sweetbread, salsa and beef stroganoff.
All three participate in “So Good It’s A Crime,” a culinary program at the jail. As the brainchild of current El Dorado County undersheriff Randy Peshon, it started in 2007 as a way to help inmates gain new skills. Under El Dorado County Jail head chef Jeannette Shippee’s direction, the program grew and expanded to Placerville, Calif.
“We don’t just teach cooking; we also teach life skills like how to keep a job and self-esteem,” Shippee said. “They have cooking skills to fall back on as a career.”
El Dorado County also works with Lake Tahoe Community College, which provides college credits to inmates in the culinary program.
Shippee said the program structure reflects the amount of time an inmate is incarcerated, and lessons include knife work, basic baking skills, general sanitation measures, sanitation management skills and more.
The program additionally caters public events — like the Aug. 31 El Dorado County Board of Supervisors South Lake Tahoe meeting, or for the South Lake Tahoe Optimist Club.
Since the program began in 2007, inmates have won dozens of awards in contests at the El Dorado County Fair in Placerville.
According to program organizers, some students moved on to successful careers after being released. One person serves as head chef at a South Lake Tahoe restaurant, another as a hotel maintenance manager, and a third works as a chef at a Chico country club.
Vincent Benoit, The Brewery at Lake Tahoe’s general manager, said the program pushed him in the right direction while serving time. He then obtained an instructional assistant job at Lake Tahoe Community College before attending Art Institute of California, Sacramento’s culinary program.
“It gave me a start when I was at a dark time in my life,” he said.
“It’s helped me take everything I acquired along way and implement them. My creativity has allowed me to flourish to bring the brewery where it is today.”
Inmates see value
Inmates currently enrolled in the program see it as a benefit as well.
Tucker sees the culinary program as a second chance. At 58, he said his past was filled with drug abuse and jail time.
“It gives us an opportunity to dig in, learn a trade and cook instead of laying around,” he said.
Tucker said the learning process starts with small lessons and expands under Shippee’s tutelage. Examples include a recent chili cookoff contest at the 2015 South Lake Tahoe Fall Festival.
For Klug, another inmate, the program is a good fit because he loves to cook. Like Tucker, he said it also allows him to gain new skills.
“It is an opportunity to put my energy into something worthwhile,” Klug said.
The inmates noted that their success in the program is due to Shippee’s support.
Shippee, a 24-year veteran with the county jail, in turn said success depends on the inmates — they must meet standards set by both jail deputies and civilian staff. Most students have non-violent records.
“They have to be nice because I accept nothing but the best behavior here,” Shippee said. “If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be in the class.”
According to Shippee, the culinary program also educates the public.
“I want them to be involved in the community,” Shippee said of South Lake Tahoe Jail inmates. “That way the community sees that they have talent.”