The smell of various foods filled the air, pans of grilled chicken sizzled on the stove, and inmates in aprons, hats, and chef’s smocks hurried through the industrial kitchen as they worked with their team to win the gold trophy.
Wendasia Gipson kept her cool as she moved around the kitchen with ease, shouting “in the back” to her teammate to warn them not to bump into her while she was helping to prepare a dish called “Not the Taco.”
“Anything we worried about and wouldn’t do just came naturally to us as we walked into the kitchen,” said Gipson, a Lowell inmate.
Four teams of male and female inmates from across the state participated Wednesday in the inaugural Culinary Arts Training Competition hosted by Lowell Correctional Institution. But tensions rose when the trophy stood in the huge dining room, where staff from the institution sat at tables waiting to sample the food.
Gipson, 25, has been in Lowell’s culinary arts program since May but has never considered cooking as a career. Entering this competition and the support of her teacher and teammates made her reconsider her future.
Lowell Correctional Institution is a women’s prison in Ocala. His special culinary arts kitchen is part of vocational and vocational training programs aimed at giving inmates the opportunity to find gainful employment after release.
Inmates from four culinary certification programs at Lowell Correctional Institution, Lancaster Correctional Institution, Madison Correctional Institution, and Quincy Annex participated. Each team had four chefs who were given an hour to demonstrate their cooking knowledge and skills by preparing a meal and dessert for a panel of four judges.
The judges were Jacqui Pressinger, director of strategic partnerships for the American Culinary Federation Inc., Antonio Murillo, operations manager of BJ’s Restaurants Inc., Turdurra Fulbright, general manager of BJ’s Daytona, and Ryan Manning, an chef-owner a food and beverage consulting company.
Participants were rated on a scale of zero to 100. Many factors contributed to the rating including presentation, taste and how well the team worked together.
Manning said he was impressed with the inmates who attended and even learned a few cooking techniques from them. Inmates weren’t allowed to have certain tools, like knives, but they could improvise and use things like the back of a slotted spoon to grate a lime, he said.
“For these guys to come out with skills is a great development for them and for society,” he said.
Gipson’s team voted on who the four chefs would be and she said it was an honor to be chosen. Her team prepared “Not the Taco,” a wonton bowl filled with flavorful chicken and topped with an avocado and bacon whip. For dessert they made brown butter and bacon ice cream.
While the Lowell women prepared their dish, Lancaster Correctional Institution’s Scott McKinney worked with his team to create grilled chicken with avocado, tomato and mango salsa over green bean rice and a blueberry pineapple dump cake to prepare dessert.
McKinney, 57, has been with the program for four years and said it was a real-world experience. He said he and his team had the time of their lives entering the competition.
“We don’t have a team,” McKinney said. “We are brothers.”
The camaraderie was evident as the team encouraged each other to do their best. McKinney cheered on his teammates with “good work” as each worked to prepare a different portion of the meal.
Fulbright said he was impressed with the competition and can’t wait to come back and judge the chefs at the next competition. The skills competitors pick up can help them apply for jobs in the future, he said.
This is one of many programs offers the Florida Department of Corrections. Others include programs for masonry, carpentry and plumbing.
Ricky D. Dixon, Secretary of the Florida Department of Justice, said it was important to have these programs because a large portion of inmates will one day return to the community. If they don’t prepare inmates to be good employees, then the department is failing the public, he said.
“Reducing victimization not only means keeping them here during their sentencing period, it sets them up for greater success when they return,” Dixon said.
The competition aims to strengthen an individual’s ability to seek and receive feedback and constructive criticism, and to engage in an activity that allows an individual to express themselves creatively within a set of rules and expectations, according to the press release .
After the judges tasted each dish, it was time to announce the winner. Staff from the four institutions gathered in the dining room and all eyes were on the judges.
Each judge said how enjoyable the competition was because the inmates were so passionate. Manning said he would hire every single candidate and hoped they would all stay in the industry.
Fulbright said the program is changing the narrative of what goes on inside the prison walls. These inmates can show prospective employers they have the skills and drive to be successful in their jobs, he said.
The difference in points between first and second place was only 0.20, and when the judges were about to announce the winner, all the chefs held their breath.
Cheers and applause erupted as Lowell Correctional Institution was announced as the first place winner, and teammates shouted and hugged. Some even shed tears of joy.
The four women proudly held up their trophies and thanked the jury and everyone involved in the competition and the culinary arts program. Her months of hard work leading up to the competition had paid off.
“I’m just amazed,” said Gipson as she laughed and shared smiles with her teammates. “It feels incredible.”