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Inmates face off in state culinary arts competition

Inmates from the Quincy Annex culinary program prepare their fried chicken and mashed potato dish in the final minutes before they are scored by the judges. “This was beyond expectations,” said Patrick Mahoney, the director of programs at Lowell. (Alexa Herrera/WUFT News)

By Alexa Herrera - WUTF News

November 2, 2022

The smell of various foods filled the air, pans of grilled chicken sizzled on the stove and inmates wearing aprons, hats and chef’s coats rushed around the industrial kitchen as they worked with their team to win the gold trophy.

Wendasia Gipson kept her cool as she moved through the kitchen with ease calling out “behind” to her teammates warning them not to bump into her as she helped prepare a dish called “Not the Taco.”

“Everything we were worried about that we weren’t gonna do came naturally to us when we got in the kitchen,” said Gipson, an inmate at Lowell.

Four teams of male and female inmates from across the state competed in the first Culinary Arts Training Competition hosted by Lowell Correctional Institution Wednesday. But tensions ran high as the trophy sat in the vast dining area where institution staff sat at tables waiting to try the food. 

Gipson, 25, has been in the culinary arts program at Lowell since May but never considered cooking as a career. Being in this competition and receiving support from her teacher and teammates made her rethink her future.

Lowell Correctional Institution is a female prison in Ocala. Its special culinary arts kitchen is part of the Career and Technical Education programs that aim to give inmates opportunities to find gainful employment after release. 

Inmates from four culinary certification programs at Lowell Correctional Institution, Lancaster Correctional Institution, Madison Correctional Institution and Quincy Annex competed. Each team had four chefs who had an hour to demonstrate their cooking knowledge and abilities by making a meal and dessert for a panel of four judges.

The judges were Jacqui Pressinger, the director of strategic partnerships for the American Culinary Federation Inc., Antonio Murillo, the director of operations for BJ’s Restaurants Inc., Turdurra Fulbright, the General Manager of BJ’s in Daytona and Ryan Manning, a chef who owns a food and beverage consulting firm.

The contestants were scored on a scale from zero to 100. Many factors contributed to the score including presentation, taste and how well the team worked together.

Manning said he was impressed by the inmates who participated and even learned a couple of cooking techniques from them. The inmates were not allowed to have certain tools like knives, but they were able to improvise and use things such as the back of a slotted spoon to zest a lime, he said. 

“To have these guys come out with a skill set is a great evolution for them and society,” he said.

Gipson’s team took a vote to determine who the four chefs would be, and she said it was an honor to be picked. Her team prepared “Not the Taco,” a wonton shell stuffed with spicy chicken and topped with an avocado bacon whip. For dessert, they made brown butter bacon ice cream. 

Wendasia Gipson cuts bell peppers to put inside her “Not the Taco” dish. “We have been hitting the kitchen back to back trying to make sure we can critique this to the best of our abilities,” she said. (Alexa Herrera/WUFT News)

As the women from Lowell crafted their dish, Scott McKinney from Lancaster Correctional Institution worked with his team to make grilled chicken topped with avocado, tomato and mango salsa over rice with green beans and a blueberry and pineapple “dump cake” for dessert. 

McKinney, 57, has been in the program for four years and said it is real-world experience. He said he and his team had the time of their lives participating in the competition.

“We don’t have a team,” McKinney said. “We’re brothers.”

The camaraderie was evident as the team encouraged each other to do their best. McKinney cheered his teammates on with “good job” as each worked to prepare a different part of the meal. 

Fulbright said he was impressed with the contest and can’t wait to come back and judge the chefs at the next competition. The skills the competitors will take with them can help them compete for a job in the future, he said.

This is one of the many programs the Florida Department of Corrections offers. Others include programs for masonry, carpentry and plumbing.

Ricky D. Dixon, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, said it is important to have these programs because a large portion of inmates will someday return to the community. If they don’t prepare the inmates to be good employees then the department fails the public, he said. 

Inmates from Madison Correctional Institution preparing a rolled, flattened chicken stuffed with roasted red peppers, spinach cheese with mashed potatoes, green beans and a cannoli made from scratch for dessert. “This was restaurant-quality food,” said Jacqui Pressinger, a judge. (Alexa Herrera/WUFT News)

“Reducing victimization is not only keeping them here during the time they are sentenced but preparing them for greater success upon their return,” Dixon said. 

The competition aims to reinforce a person’s ability to seek and receive feedback and constructive criticism and engage in an activity that allows a person to creatively express themself within a set of rules and expectations, according to the press release.  

After the judges tasted each dish, it was time to announce the winner. Staff from the four institutions gathered in the dining room, and all eyes were on the judges. 

Each judge said how enjoyable the competition had been because of how passionate the inmates were. Manning said he would hire every single contestant and hoped they all continue in the industry. 

Fulbright said that the program changes the narrative of what goes on inside prison walls. These inmates can show future employers that they have the skills and drive to succeed in their jobs, he said.  

The difference in points between first and second place was only .20, and as the judges were about to announce the winner, all the chefs held their breath.

The four-woman team from Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala won first place in the statewide Culinary Arts Training Competition Wednesday. “We are just so excited,” said Wendasia Gipson, right, an inmate at Lowell. (Alexa Herrera/WUFT News)

Cheers and applause erupted when Lowell Correctional Institution was announced as the first-place winner, and the teammates yelled and embraced each other. Some even shed happy tears.

The four women proudly held up their trophy and thanked the judges and everyone involved in the competition and the culinary arts program. Their hard work for months leading up to the competition had paid off.

“I am astounded right now,” Gipson said as she laughed and smiled with her teammates. “It feels amazing.”