A Chicago Chef Is Rehabilitating Inmates One Pizza at a Time

“Yes, Chef,” a white coat-wearing student says to 62-year-old Bruno Abate when he asks if the water is boiling. He’s posed this question to the room rather than one person in particular. The water is indeed ready for fresh pasta, while milk— destined to become fresh ricotta—comes to a boil in another pot. Meanwhile, a mirepoix slowly softens in a Dutch oven.

Abate’s kitchen operates like a well-oiled machine: Gelato churns in the soft-serve machine while the pizza oven spits out bubbly pies in a matter of minutes. But pick up a knife and you’ll notice it’s chained to the counter. Open a couple aluminum cans and expect the lids to be counted and removed. Look just below the hem of each student’s white chef coat and notice the letters “DOC” printed on the beige pant leg. That is because this culinary school operates in the basement of Division 11 of Cook County Jail in Chicago.

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This Chef Won’t Let His Diagnosis Cripple His Career

Over glasses of cava, in a 20-seat room tucked between the bar and the kitchen, guests gather for a culinary experience offered three times a week. It’s a trick restaurant groupies are seeing more frequently as the market for fine dining decreases yet chefs’ desire to offer plates of progressive food remains. Open a casual concept to pay the bills—in this case, DanDan, with veggie momo dumplings, schmaltz fried rice, and Peking duck—plus an elevated operation to feed creativity. That’s EsterEv.

The eight-course meal starts with a trio of bites—pickled mustard tart with saffron mouse and cumin-lime foam, kimchi cracklins topped with egg salad as well as chicken skin slathered with chicken liver mousse and fried capers. Hours ago, those capers set Dan Jacobs, one of DanDan’s owners, apart from the other cooks in the kitchen. “I should be able to do simple tasks like opening jars, but the strength is just not there,” he says, passing the jar behind him for his sous chef to open. “It wants to be there, but it’s not there.”

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This Chef Won a James Beard Award, Then Closed His Restaurant

“I had no desire to win a James Beard Award,” says Gerard Craft, winner of the 2015 Best Chef: Midwest category. He might not have wanted it, but after six nominations and five losses, he needed it—if only to validate keeping his St. Louis restaurant Niche open for ten years. The restaurant was considered the jewel of St. Louis’ culinary scene: The 60-seat spot that offered delicate plates of Missouri-grown ingredients earned Craft the title of Food & Wine Best New Chef, Inc. magazine Star Entrepreneur and, lastly, a James Beard Award. The limelight distracted from the restaurant’s multiple identity crises and the fact that the chef was succumbing to the pressure of being a media darling.

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This Chicago Jail Farm Grows Tomatoes and Restaurant Cooks

Each day, David Cole wakes up at 7 AM for his three-hour commute to the affluent Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. He heads to Yusho, a Japanese restaurant owned by Charlie Trotter-trained chef Matthias Merges, where he prepares dishes like miso ramen and tempura eggplant.

But Cole is not a chef himself—he is a prep cook. It was only job he could secure after serving a year in prison for selling drugs to an undercover police officer. In a sea of refusals, Merges was the only one that would grant Cole, given his criminal record, a yes.

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