Food & Drink

San Quentin to the kitchen: inside the prison program staffing Northern California restaurants

By the time lunch was served on May 15, Phillip Sims had prepared a spread to be admired. There was roasted asparagus with shallot mushroom vinaigrette and a pistachio-pine nut medley; handmade pappardelle and spaghetti topped by sausage bolognese; a rich soup with poached chicken, ricotta gnocchi and maitake and black trumpet mushrooms.

First, though, he had to chop a sackful of onions without violating an unwritten rule: no crying in prison.

Sims, 48, recently completed his final class in San Quentin State Prison’s Quentin Cooks program, which teaches soon-to-be-paroled inmates the skills necessary to get restaurant jobs upon release. The three-year-old program has placed ex-cons in Bay Area restaurants such as Homeroom, Smoke Berkeley BBQ & Beer Garden and Cala as well as a handful in the Sacramento area.

A Portland, Ore., native, Sims was living in Sacramento when he relapsed into his cocaine addiction in 2017, he said. He said he stole $4 out of the purse of a woman he was seeing and rode off on his bike. Police later caught up to him and arrested him on suspicion of six crimes he denies committing. Facing up to 18 years in prison and represented by a public defender, he pleaded no contest to felony domestic violence and was sentenced to six years.

Nearly two years clean now, Sims has used Quentin Cooks to expand his cooking repertoire from fried chicken and simple breakfasts to Japanese, Indian, El Salvadorian and Caribbean cuisine. He’s learned to make mozzarella from scratch and “a lot of vegetables that (are) hard to pronounce.” He also earned the ServSafe food handler’s certification necessary to get a job on the outside.

Sims will be paroled in 2020, at which point he’ll be required to move back to Sacramento County for at least a year. He’d like to work in an area kitchen during that time, he said, before eventually returning to his children and grandchildren in Oregon.

“I just want to live a little quality life before it’s over with,” Sims said. “I want to have some peace, you know, peace of mind. I’m tired of coming to jail, tired of being in my addiction. I just want to live life on life’s terms.”

All of Quentin Cooks’ ingredients come from distributors VegiWorks or Chef’s Warehouse, where Lisa Dombrowski worked when she co-founded the program alongside wholesale bakery owner and longtime volunteer Helaine Meltnitzer in 2016. Weekly classes are taught by Chef’s Warehouse employees Huw Thornton and Adelaar Rogers or guests such as longtime Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell and James Beard Award nominee Tu David Phu.

Priority is given to inmates with less than two years left until release, and attending class accrues credits toward an early release. Melnitzer helps connect Quentin Cooks alumni with restaurateurs when they get out. A weekly break from prison food’s blandness is its own incentive: on the day of Sims’ last class, the rest of H-Unit ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, graham crackers, baby carrots and apples.

“In Quentin Cooks, they recall a taste of life before they came in while (instructors are) teaching them skills for when they get out,” Melnitzer said.

Still, this is prison, and the chains connecting chef knives to prep tables are a reminder of inmates’ literal short leashes. Any infraction such as fighting or having a cell phone is grounds for expulsion from Quentin Cooks, meaning the program usually only graduates about two thirds of inmates who enroll at the start of the 12-week session.

On the outside, though, the restaurant industry is one of the few where Sims’ label as a felon won’t disqualify him from a job. Kitchens have long been landing spots for people with checkered pasts or even presents — see Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Jeff Henderson, a former Southern California drug dealer who spent eight years in prison before becoming a Food Network star.

Restaurants where all or most of the employees have criminal records have opened in Minneapolis, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio in the last five years. An Oak Park restaurant called Hautebird plans to intentionally hire people with records as well as former gang members, trafficking survivors and addicts when it opens in late 2020, co-owner Misty Alafranji said.

With nearly 1 million job vacancies in the restaurant and hospitality sector nationwide, restaurateurs also just can’t afford to be that picky with qualified job-seekers. That’s one reason Chris Jarosz hired Quentin Cooks flagship graduate James “New York” Seegars at Broderick Roadhouse’s midtown location just months after Seegars concluded a 28 1/2-year sentence.

“A lot of times, guys end up (in prison) in the first place because they don’t feel like they have a place in society,” Jarosz said. “The likelihood of those guys being repeat offenders if they actually have a good career path is a lot less. As a whole, it’s kind of our responsibility to keep these guys on the straight-and-narrow by giving them the opportunity to work.”

Seegars said he became addicted to heroin when he was 11 years old, two years before a rival gang member shot him in the hip with a .22 caliber rifle. He stayed hooked until he was 20 and was in Attica Correctional Facility when the now-famous riot broke out.

When some acquaintances told him about a robbery they were planning out west in 1987, he came to Sacramento to take part. He was there for all of two days before the event, and was caught that same night, he said. Though he didn’t elaborate much on the crime in an interview at Broderick Roadhouse last year, he was eventually convicted of robbery as well as attempted rape, forced oral copulation with a minor and sexual penetration with a foreign object.

Seegars entered his sentence with the binary mindset that prisons were full of wolves and sheep, and he wasn’t going to be a sheep. That mentality lasted until his mother died in 1998. Grief made him take an honest look at what his life had become, he said, and flipped an internal switch.

Seegars took part in 27 prison programs during the 17 years leading up to his release, he said. He earned an associate’s degree through the Prison University Project and spent six years in anger management before qualifying for Quentin Cooks, from which he graduated in 2016.

“You can talk about change all you want, but unless that decision comes from your heart, it’s not going to last,” said Seegars, 66. “I ain’t a bad person. I just made some bad choices in my life, that’s all. And I thank God that I got an opportunity to correct some of them.”

Seegars landed a job at Broderick Roadhouse in midtown shortly after his release, and worked as a prep, fry and pantry cook and dishwasher for about two years. He simultaneously started a side janitorial business with his fiancée and eventually booked contracts to clean Broderick locations in West Sacramento, midtown, Carmichael and Roseville, earning enough income that he was able to quit his kitchen job.

Dan Martinez wants a non-cooking restaurant job as well, he said. Stocky with a broad grin and pronounced watch tan, the 39-year-old West Sacramento native was paroled and returned to Elk Grove on May 20 — two days before Quentin Cooks’ four-course graduation dinner for volunteers, sponsors and prison officials.

Martinez managed Sizzler, Denny’s, McDonalds and Five Guys franchises in the Sacramento area before being convicted of methamphetamine possession last year. He previously did time for other crimes, including a 2013 guilty plea for embezzling from an employer, but found himself hireable after release then as well.

After 16 months of sobriety behind bars with the help of San Quentin’s Narcotics Anonymous program, Martinez wants to return to a similar management role, he said. He hopes to teach others the flavor combinations and cooking techniques he learned in the program; if nothing else, he’ll be a better cook around the house.

“My wife is a really good cook, she’s a really good baker,” Martinez said. “I want to show her that I can jump in the kitchen with her. I’ve learned a lot, and now I’m going to go out there and utilize what I’ve learned and cook for her, cook for my family.”

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.