Jail bake

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Gourmet graduates: Inmate Cynthia Hayes donned a white chef’s cap and watched with a satisfied grin as a roomful of prison guests tried her dish: housemade ravioli stuffed with butternut squash puree. She had topped the fresh pasta with decadent brown butter and crunchy, aromatic clusters of fried sage gremolata.

This was Hayes’ graduation ceremony. She had elevated her cooking craft in the new Culinary Arts Management program at Folsom Women’s Facility and was part of the first graduating class on December 20.

“It taught me a lot of new techniques for cooking,” she said, sitting beside her husband Willie Hayes. “I like making my family happy when I cook. I have seven boys and my husband—you can tell he’s undernourished,” she said as she rubbed his belly.

“I’m well-rounded,” Willie joked. “I like that she takes pride in what she does.”

The program had launched only six months prior to the graduation day of the 11 inmates. In partnership with Los Rios Community College District, the classes gave the women college credits with a potentially lasting effect: Recidivism from the Folsom Women’s Facility educational programs is less than 7 percent, according to Charles Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority.

Graduate Shellika Jerkins said the program challenged her to learn new skills every day—even though she had previously attended Las Vegas’ Le Cordon Bleu. For today’s cream of broccoli cheddar soup, she prepared a roux by stirring it for 30 minutes.

“It changed my perspective a lot,” Jerkins said. “It gave me confidence that I can put something together and it looks like a gourmet meal. I want to own my own restaurant.”

Nearby, inmate Shannon Frazier cuddled her 5-month-old grandson for the first time. Carlitos was dressed in a reindeer onesie. As she bounced him, she called the program “awesome.”

“I used to eat Hamburger Helper—I just didn’t enjoy cooking,” Frazier said. “Now I know how to make homemade stuffing, pies, soups, so many dishes.”

The three-course meal included appetizers like stuffed mushrooms with ground pork. An entree of braised short ribs tasted rich with a molasses flavor and was sprinkled with caramelized onions and kale, all sitting atop a ring of creamy polenta. Dessert was a chocolate mousse with housemade whipped cream and peppermint crumble.

Do the inmates normally eat this well?

“I don’t eat the cafeteria food,” Hayes said. “I buy in the commissary.”

Helen Weiner, currently on parole, attended the event to cheer on her graduating friends—and to sample their upscale cooking, of course. She called the regular cafeteria food “god awful.”

“They did such a good job,” Weiner said. “I’m so proud of them. … It’s a good segway for me into what real food is going to taste like again.”