San Quentin cooking class trains inmates for life outside

By Matthew Pera, The Mercury News

Four days before his scheduled release from California’s oldest prison, Daniel Martinez was covered in flour in a San Quentin kitchen, beating eggs, kneading dough and chopping nuts.

Huw Thornton, center, leads a groups of inmates in while working in the kitchen of H-unit at the California State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Jeremy Portje/ Marin Independent Journal)

Huw Thornton, center, leads a groups of inmates in while working in the kitchen of H-unit at the California State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Jeremy Portje/ Marin Independent Journal)

Next week, when his seven classmates graduate from the Quentin Cooks program, Martinez plans to be at home with his wife in Sacramento, following up on a few job opportunities he’s been connected with through the prison’s culinary training course.

“I’m very ambitious,” he said Wednesday, pausing from the flow of washing dishes, “very determined to succeed out there.”

Martinez, who has been inside San Quentin State Prison for the past 16 months, signed up for the 12-week cooking class series in part because he wants to keep up with his wife in the kitchen at home after he’s released.

“She’s a great cook,” he said.

A former restaurant manager, Martinez was also eager to learn skills that would boost his understanding of back-of-the-house operations. He plans to jump back into the service industry.

“I just wanted to enhance my skills and have more options to provide for my wife and I,” he said.

Martinez is confident that he’ll find a job quickly. That confidence is what Helaine Melnitzer envisioned when she co-created the Quentin Cooks program in 2016.

“We’re giving them phenomenal skills,” she said.

Melnitzer, a food industry veteran, saw an opportunity to benefit both Bay Area restaurants, many of which are often starving for employees, and formerly incarcerated people, who sometimes struggle to find employment after they are released from prison.

She assembled a team of volunteer chefs to teach weekly classes to San Quentin inmates scheduled for release. At the end of the course, graduates take the ServSafe exam and, if they pass, they receive a food handler certificate, a credential that many kitchens require.

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