The emphatic warning rang through the kitchen of the women’s
correctional facility as a woman with neck tattoos peeking out of chef
whites hurried from chopping block to stove.
What would otherwise could be cause for alarm in the jail on
Tuesday served more as a rallying cry, as four culinary teams of
inmates and law enforcement officials squared off to see who could pack
the most punch in their jambalaya, infuse sweetness in their pecan pie
and create just the right amount of flakiness in their black pepper
“Hot! Hot! Behind you!”
The teams, having traded in their jail orange for crisp chef
whites and tall hats bearing their names and team number, worked
quickly while remembering to warn others to watch for scorching pans
and sharp knives.
Forget the stereotypes of poor jail food. The fare on the menu
Tuesday included artfully arranged fruit salad and balsamic dressing
poured over cabbage salad. Scooped-out pineapples held a medley of
fruit and salmon sat on a bed of baby potatoes and sautéed corn.
The chefs were no slouches, either. The cook-off showcased
skills taught in a collaborative program between the Sheriff’s Office
and JobTrain, the Menlo Park-based program that offers vocational
The culinary aspect, headed by Chef Adam Weiner, began as an
idea approximately four years ago when Chef Elihu Kittell of the jail
realized female inmates needed something to do. The male inmates had
programs but the women were lacking. Coupled with the women’s jail
kitchen being shut down after a fire and food preparation moved to the
men’s facility, there was a void that needed filling. Not only does the
program keep inmates busy during incarceration, Kittell said it boosts
their confidence and gives them skills that they can carry back with
them in the outside world. Several enroll full time at JobTrain and a
number have made the leap into a cooking career. Important for Kittell,
the students move forward rather than back to jail.
“In two-and-a-half years, not one has come back,” Kittell said,
while observing his pet project culminate in the frenzy around him.
Each team included a guest chef — District Attorney Jim Fox,
Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson, Sheriff’s Capt. John Quinlan and Deputy
Chief Probation Officer Ken Pesso — and program participants both from
the jail and JobTrain. Each group had to create six servings of any
salad and fruit dish but were required to follow recipes for jambalaya,
salmon, green pea salad, black pepper biscuits and pecan pie.
They were also issued rules, mainly no sabotage and have fun.
“Remember this is supposed to be a team building exercise, not an
audition for Hell’s Kitchen,” the sheet read.
Gordon Ramsey aside, the teams were working for a win alongside the fun.
As Amelia chopped parsley, Vicky whisked dressing so fast her
arm was a blur. Angela did some final chopping of fruit for her salad
and in every corner recipes were checked and double-checked. Team One,
headed by Fox, was certain their secret weapon, a raspberry
vinaigrette, spelled victory but Pesso’s Team Three was opting for a
coleslaw rather than Waldorf salad. His suggestion for where to place
the jam next to the biscuit was dismissed by his teammates and he
figured they were right.
The controlled chaos was punctuated by time checks and Weiner occasionally stopped a plate before it headed out.
“Take the stem off,” he told one chef, sending back the fruit salad.
Amid the husking of corn, the peeling of shrimp and grilling of
vegetables, floor judges circled and jotted scores on mise en place and
cleanliness. One judge eyed a pan of cooked salmon sitting on a bottom
rack near Team One. Time was almost over and “what were they going to
do with it?” she asked before seeing Fox scoop it up for some
Later, the food would be scored on color contrast, texture, garnish and creativity.
With that in mind, one chef sawed down a paper cup into an
impromptu small container while another used a plastic spoon as a jam
Presentation counted as Team Four member Quinlan noted, curling butter into balls and wiping jam from plates.
“This is OK. I’ve seen it on the Food Network,” he joked.
He also formed his biscuits into hearts instead of the traditional circle.
“It gives a little extra love,” said Quinlan, who wasted no opportunity to proclaim victory before the judging.
And perhaps it was the love that put Quinlan’s team — dubbed “The Fantastic Four”— in first place.
Either that, or the salmon.
Assistant Sheriff Tricia Sanchez cited the fish, baked instead of fried, as the one with the best texture.
And in the end, Team Two which included Jacobs Gibson, was undone by the peas. Or rather, the lack of them.
Supervisor Adrienne Tissier, a judge alongside Sanchez, Judge
Stephen Hall and Sheriff Greg Munks, said the team forgot the
ingredient — a major no-no in the rules.
Team Two came in second, followed by Team One and Team Three.
As Team One placed second, the members of Team Four realized their victory and shocked faces broke into smiles.
“I just can’t believe it! Everybody was talking about Team Two
so I thought they had it,” said Laura Engman who put her special touch
on the team’s servings of jambalaya and fruit salad.
Hugging teammate Amilia Otis and her first place medal, Engman said she might even sleep with it on.
Both women said the program has been a joy and hope to continue
cooking once they finish their time. Both have children — Engman three
and Otis six — so the skills will definitely be handy.
The program, and the win, also gave them something else.
“I want my children to be proud of me,” Engman said.