Jefferson Awards for Public ServiceBy Sharon Chin


SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) — Two women came up with such a popular recipe for a prison education program, there are dozens of inmates waiting to enroll.

At San Quentin State Prison, the program involves volunteer chefs teaching inmates how to prepare gourmet meals. Lisa Dombroski and Lainy Melnitzer founded the program Quentin Cooks three years ago.

“Not only are we teaching these men a skill but we’re trying to offer them employment,” said Melnitzer.

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Dombroski, a former chef, and Melnitzer, a wholesale bakery owner, developed a 15-week cooking curriculum led by volunteer chefs. The program has taught dozens of men and helped them find jobs once paroled.

Chef Huw Thornton operates the sessions like a professional kitchen.

“We’ve always got guys who are experienced, and guys who are literally holding a knife for the first time and dicing a vegetable for the first time,” Thornton said.

They learn to make everything from scratch. On the menu recently: ribeye steak, roasted vegetables, and Caesar salad.

Supplies and donations come from Chefs Warehouse, VegiWorks, and Whole Foods.

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The program doesn’t just cook up food but also hard work and team work.

“The greatest thing we can give these guys is just that – it’s the life skills you learn in the kitchen,” Dombroski said.

“I like to think that maybe we’ve given them confidence, that maybe, ‘we can move on,'” Melnitzer added.

Student chef Jesse Ayres says Dombroski and Menitzer have seasoned Quentin Cooks with love and care.

“They’re really, really sincere,” Ayres said. “No matter what we’ve done, as long as we’re willing to work hard and put our best food fowrard, they’re going to give us an opportunity.

Students graduate after cooking up a special dinner for dozens of guests. They also earn a food handler certificate from the Marin County Department of Public Health.

Quentin Cooks has made such a name for itself that it’s accepted invitations to serve the prison’s distinguished guests. Recently, the student chefs cooked for a delegation visiting from Norway, and they received a standing ovation after preparing a meal for a conference of California state wardens.

Dombroski and Melnitzer keep track of many of the graduates who’ve paroled. To their knowledge, none of the program’s alumni have ended up back in prison.

“I couldn’t be more proud of it,” Dombroski said.

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