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‘There’s geniuses in there’: how three chefs rose from prison to the top of the culinary world

More than 600,000 people are released from prisons every year in the US and face an array of barriers to re-entry. For many, food has been a refuge

Chef Michael Carter and staff, all formerly incarcerated, open up for the day at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia, on 21 September. Photograph: Kriston Jae Bethel/The Guardian

By Sonya Singh

Monday, October 2, 2023

Write this down: Put together ramen noodles, cheesy crackers and squeeze cheese – that’s your dough. Mix barbecue sauce and salsa to layer on a marinara. Break your shaving mirror in half to create an edge just sharp enough to slice a cheddar block.

Now, the tricky part. Make a funnel out of a toilet paper roll and light the inside. Stick a pencil in either end of a summer sausage like you would for a barbecue. Twist the pencils on the edge of the toilet, over the flame, making sure the smoke goes down the funnel, inside the toilet. Chop up the now-cooked sausage, and you’ve got Michael Carter’s jailhouse pizza.

These days, he’s Chef Michael Carter, the executive chef at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia, where he serves up Philly-inspired, Detroit-style pies that have made best-of lists in the New York Times and more. His “jailhouse pizza”, which he plans to include in a cookbook someday, is the result of an experiment he concocted from commissary items over 12 years in prison.

Chef Michael Carter makes pizza at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia on 21 September. Photograph: Kriston Jae Bethel

“It let me know that I could make something out of nothing,” said Carter, who hires only formerly incarcerated people at Down North.

Carter is one of more than 600,000 people released from state and federal prisons every year, each one faced with an array of barriers to re-entry. For many, food has been a refuge – by providing jobs, an outlet for their imagination, or a source of meaning. The Guardian spoke with three renowned chefs, all previously incarcerated, who tapped into culinary creativity while behind bars, combining the resourcefulness that prison demands with family memories of food as care and community.

Chef Keith Corbin is the co-owner and executive chef at Alta Adams in Los Angeles, which has become both a local staple and a favorite of Black Hollywood for its dishes like Jerk-Spiced Grilled Plantain Tacos with Mango Habanero Sauce. After spending 10 years in prison, Corbin developed a culinary style he calls “California Soul” – also the name of his unflinching memoir.

“People tend to give soul food to a region or a culture or a race. I look at soul food for the intent,” said Corbin, a two-time James Beard Award nominee. He connects it back to enslaved people who toiled all day, then came together to cook and sing hymns. “When I look at it that way,” he said, “soul food is a food created in an environment of love with the intent to nourish, sustain and feed the soul of each other”.

Keith Corbin is co-owner and executive chef at Alta Adams in Los Angeles. Photograph: Courtesy of Chef Keith Corbin

Food’s ability to sustain people beyond nutrition – though prison food’s literal lack of nutritional value is its own concern – is also what inspired Chef Sharon Richardson’s life after release.

As she neared the end of her 20 years in New York prisons, her mother had a stroke. The prison permitted a visit to the hospital so she could say goodbye. When she returned to her unit – which had a kitchen – she was surprised the officer didn’t immediately send her back to her room. Instead, she was greeted by the other incarcerated women, who had stayed up and cooked for her.

“My mother had been friends with their families from visits,” Richardson said. “We ate and we cried, and we cried and we ate.’”

After her release, she founded a non-profit, Reentry Rocks, and its sister company, Just Soul Catering, which exclusively employs previously incarcerated women and offers them trauma-informed support. This year she was a semifinalist in the James Beard Foundation’s Favorite Chef competition with Carla Hall.

Richardson traces her post-release work back to that night after the hospital visit.

“So when people say, ‘Why food?’ Because that was a moment – in a prison. No judge could understand that. No jury could understand that,” Richardson said. “If I’m going to start a business, it’s got to be about food. It’s got to be about people. It’s got to be about love.”

While prison brought out their creativity, it wasn’t the source of it – or their culinary chops – Corbin said. For each of them, that was all family, with a dash of lifelong survival skills.

Corbin’s grandmother got up at 5am every day to cook huge batches of food for their community, he said. She grew tomatoes and collard greens in the yard and cooked inexpensive cuts of meat for hours to tease out the flavor.

“That love for feeding people was my first connection to food,” Corbin said. Growing up in the projects of Watts, they didn’t eat in restaurants, and he had no concept of what a chef did.

In prison, he got a job in the kitchen, where he could only do so much with the often watery, flavorless ingredients at hand. There’s no love in that mass-produced food, Corbin said. But he started to layer flavors with the processed, packaged items he could order at the commissary.

“I would eat a soup, and the soup would be just regular soup. And my palette started to ask for more things, whether it was acid, different textures,” he said. “The creativity changed then.”

He’d make his own Reese’s cups by adding syrup and nuts to a peanut butter pack and melting Hershey’s chocolate over it. When people responded well to his creations, Corbin began selling them. He saw Asian inmates making kimchi when they could snag the rare vegetable, Latino inmates making tamales with ground-up Fritos.

“You have people in there that literally never went to school for technology, but the phone breaks and they’ll figure out how to fix the motherboard,” Corbin said. “There’s geniuses in there, ingenuity.”

Keith Corbin developed a culinary style he calls ‘California Soul’ after spending 10 years in prison. Photograph: Courtesy of Chef Keith Corbin

most of Richardson’s education came from learning how to cook from others inside. She learned her favorite commissary creation from a friend: peanut butter hot wings with okra and rice.

“We was cheffing up in that penitentiary,” Richardson said. Now, wings are a go-to on her catering menu: spicy wings, teriyaki wings, jerk wings. “But food is just food. If you ain’t got no love … you’ve just got chicken wings.”

After his release, Carter took a class on résumé writing for chefs, and he asked the instructor what he should do about the gap in his employment history. She asked about his job in the prison kitchen, where he turned out enormous batches of food every day.

“She said, ‘I never cooked for 2,000 people. You know what you are? You’re an expert at mass-quantity production,’” Carter recalled. He got a catering job the next week.

Carter said people often underestimate returning citizens, not considering how hard they’ll work when offered a chance to earn a livable wage after years of literal pennies for their labor. The average wage for incarcerated people in non-industry jobs ranges from 13 to 52 cents an hour, according to a report from the ACLU and the Global Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago. In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, most inmates receive nothing at all.

“There should be entrepreneurs lined up outside of halfway houses trying to find employees,” said Carter, whose employees at Down North started at $15 an hour when they opened during the pandemic, more than double the state’s minimum wage. “[People] always think somebody had to help these guys. No, this was purely off muscle, ingenuity, hard work and sweat. That’s why we were successful.”

Re-entry skills aren’t prioritized before leaving prison, all three chefs said, and resources to help them acclimate afterward are scarce. Six generations of iPhones sailed past Carter while he was inside, a disorienting leap from the Motorola Razr he carried before prison. Understanding re-entry obstacles big and small, though, means they’re equipped to help others see an attainable path – and navigate it with them.

“I’m not a unicorn,” Corbin said, though people sometimes view his story this way. You don’t have to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu to work at Alta, he added. “If we give opportunity to people, more times than not, people will rise to the occasion.”

Through Reentry Rocks and Just Soul, Richardson offers an entrepreneurial fellowship program, where women can earn their food handler certificate and learn financial literacy.

Carter will stop what he’s doing to help someone who’s frustrated with their smartphone or needs to be connected with an attorney. Down North has apartments above the restaurant to help with re-entry housing needs, too.

“The mission is actually what made me accept the job,” Carter said, “to be able to have a voice and tell people about the plight in our community of returning citizens”.

The restaurant opened in 2020, as people marched to protest against racial injustice. “Somebody like me, I can’t go down there and pump my fists because any type of police contact is a parole violation,” he said. “This is my demonstration.”