Teens at Sacramento detention facility learn to be top chefs – and leave class job-ready

Trays full of deviled eggs, caprese sliders and ricotta crostini, all made by students, were served at an event showcasing their culinary abilities Tuesday. For dessert, they brought out homemade cookies and meringues.

Standing at a podium, chef and teacher Carissa Jones praised her students — emotionally explaining everything they learned over four months leading up to that moment.

“I work with amazing kids,” she told the room full of public officials and judges.

The students weren’t taking the class at a local high school or college, though. They’re residents at the Sacramento County Youth Detention Facility. And the Culinary Arts Showcase was a big deal for them.

It allowed 10 students to share their newfound skills with others outside the facility and be recognized for their achievements.

The facility’s culinary class, which began in April, provides extensive cooking instruction, after which the students earn a food handler’s card — making them more eligible for employment upon release, according to Youth Detention Facility officials.

It also serves as a stepping stone to the American Culinary Federation’s 300-hour apprenticeship program online, Jones said. She hopes some students will start it while in the facility and continue working on it after they leave the facility.

“Our goal is to connect student to education to job,” she said.

The facility has made a turnaround in recent years after settling a 2012 lawsuit by former residents who alleged abuse. In 2018, it won the Barbara Allen-Hagen Award, which is given to centers that emphasize positive outcomes and help students move forward.

The facility is 10 miles from downtown Sacramento and across the street from Rosemont High School.

Jones’ culinary class is the latest in a series of improvements.

Residents learn about several topics: first identifying fruits and vegetables, then herbs and spices, next oil and vinegar, on to dairy products and finally eggs, she said. Students always look at the fat, salt and acid combinations and try new things.

“Who would have thought teenagers would get down with baba ganoush,” Jones said jokingly.

The program has proved popular. Multiple students have taken a liking to cooking and are now planning careers in the food industry.

June, an 18-year-old resident at the facility, helped make the meringues for Tuesday’s event. She said she wants to start as a waitress and “move my way toward the kitchen.”

Officials disclose only the first names of residents because they are in juvenile jurisdiction.

Jezekiah, another resident, stood at the door in an apron handing out schedules. He’s interested in entering the business side of the food industry. The 18-year-old said he wants to own a buffet restaurant mixing foods from various cultures “so I can show people different types of tastes from different countries.” He also hopes to open a doughnut shop.

Aside from inspiring culinary dreams, the program has made other impact on students. For Jezekiah, it’s as simple as making him want to succeed in life.

“To succeed, you have to start somewhere,” he said. “As long as you get to acknowledge that you’re doing something good for the environment, for other people.”

That’s the goal, said David Gordon, superintendent of Sacramento County’s Office of Education. He helps run school programs for incarcerated youths.

The culinary program is just one of many, including construction, computer training and business classes, according to Gordon. Students are allowed to take them if they display good behavior. Additionally, he said, safety procedures are in place, and officers are always patrolling the classrooms.

While classes cover a wide range of topics, each aims to do the same thing.

“You want to give them hope, and you want to give them skills,” Gordon said.

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Meghan Bobrowsky, from Scripps College, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and school funding. She grew up in nearby Davis.