At the front of a bare conference room, a man in a well-fitted chef’s coat watched his culinary students make their final preparations.
The students were clearly nervous. Their hands trembled slightly as they plated and served their dishes to the 20 or so guests who had gathered for dinner. But that anxiety evaporated as the diners took their first bites.
“Delicious!” one woman said.
“It really is,” another agreed.
The students couldn’t stop smiling as they served the remaining courses and then joined their guests — chatting and laughing over the hum of happy diners.
“Wow,” a young man in a black and white striped jumpsuit said suddenly, catching the attention of the others. “I forgot for a second we were in jail.”
And that was, at least in part, the point.
Antwon Brinson, a chef and the owner of Culinary Concepts AB, orchestrated the evening as the capstone of a weeks-long culinary training course he offers to people incarcerated at Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. The purpose of the dinner is as much about giving his students confidence as it is about testing their skills.
“To see what they can accomplish in this short period of time is pretty amazing,” Brinson said. “They’ve worked for the last two months to get to this point. And a lot of them have never worked in the kitchen in their life.”
By the end of the course, each student has the training and certifications needed to work in a restaurant kitchen once they’re released.
“I applied for this course because I wanted something to do in here,” said Vincent Wade, 21. “But, it was a lot more than just cooking.” He paused for a moment, thinking.
“It really helped me get my mind right while I was in here,” he said. “Everything we learned in the kitchen applies to real life.”
Besides teaching them to cook, Brinson’s course includes multiple lessons in life skills. He teaches the students about the importance of attitude, about how to present themselves to guests and peers, about how to have integrity in what they do, about how to own their responsibilities.
Brinson began offering the course at the jail in 2019, though because of the pandemic this is only his second cohort. The classes are widely popular. This summer, 67 people applied. Four graduated.
He got the idea after launching Culinary Concepts AB, which trains people who are often overlooked by the culinary industry.
Almost immediately, Brinson noticed a troubling trend among his previously incarcerated students. They had experienced so much rejection from prospective employers, he said, that by the time they reached his program many had given up.
One woman in particular, he remembers, didn’t even go to a job interview Brinson had arranged. She assumed the high end restaurant wouldn’t “give her a chance.”
“It f—ing lit a fire,” Brinson said. “I was like, I want to be able to reach those folks before they get out and experience that rejection.”
Launching a training program at the jail was surprisingly easy, he said. Before the pandemic, Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail hosted numerous classes and programs by community groups, said Officer Olivia Dillon, the jail’s program’s director.
That’s changed now. But Dillon wants to begin bringing community-sponsored courses back into the jail.
“Programming like this is what we want,” she said. “It provides real life, tangible experience.”
Dillon stood in the jail kitchen the evening of the four-course dinner. Behind her, Brinson’s students hustled about, carrying plates of food and cooking utensils.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” Brinson called out. “We’ve got to be out the door!”
“Yes, chef,” a man in a black and white jumpsuit called out, as he hastily chopped a pile of herbs.
“Wipe this down,” Brinson said. “We don’t want this kitchen dirty.”
“On it, chef,” another student replied, as he inserted a meat thermometer into a pan of chicken.
“Really, let’s go!” Brinson yelled as he moved toward the door.
“Right behind you, chef!”
Dillon smiled as she watched the final preparations.
“He’s treating this exactly like he would his kitchen,” she said. “That’s what makes this so special. To chef, this is real life.”
It’s real life for the students, too.
“It made me realize that there is more that I can do,” said Tyreek Ragland, 25. “I feel like I learned a lot about cooking, and about myself.”