Kitchen teaches convicts to cook

The Plain Dealer


Culinary instructor Mark Jasinski, using an overhead projector and a laser pointer, explains to a class of ex-cons how to skin a freshwater eel.

“You put the eel on a cutting board, take a nail and pound it through the eye socket, bam!” he says. “Now that you’ve got the eel secured to the cutting board, you pull that leathery skin off.”

One week, the class was on seafood. Another week, meat. “Tomorrow, gentlemen, you’re going to shuck and eat an oyster,” Jasinski says, dismissing the class.

Between classroom quizzes and lectures, it’s hands-on dicing, chopping, mixing, cooking and baking in a big, new kitchen at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, which prepares up to 1,700 hot meals a day and trucks them to poor people living in shelters.

The central kitchen that serves other agencies and the culinary program are new ventures by the nonprofit social-service agency. It trains only people with felony records.

“They have to have a criminal background. That’s a requirement,” said Bryan Mauk, director of social enterprise at the agency.

Melvin McCornell, 46, who lives in a halfway house, is one of 28 students in the program. His rap sheet includes drug trafficking, aggravated theft and five years behind bars.

“Yes, I did some bad things in the past,” he said. “But this is what I do now. I don’t run with the same crowd anymore. I’m reconnecting with my family.”

McCornell has learned how to sear a duck, gut a cod and dress a turkey. He’s gotten high marks for his knife skills and extra credit for deep-frying a Snickers candy bar.

With a felony record, McCornell normally would have a hard time landing a job, but the program already has placed six of its graduates in restaurants or catering businesses, so he’s hopeful.

“I’ll graduate in August, and I’ll be a cook,” he said. “My mind is made up. I’m making changes. I’m trying to excel and do my best here.”

The culinary program came to life with the recent move by Lutheran Metro from its long-time headquarters in the Ohio City area to a renovated building with large, airy space.

With the bigger space, the agency was able to build a kitchen with industrial ovens, heavy-duty stoves, walk-in coolers and a mechanized cauldron that can hold 30 gallons of soup at one time.

The kitchen, which operates on an $800,000 annual budget, employs nine people full-time, including chefs, truck drivers and support staff.

Matt Barnes, a veteran cook and graduate of a culinary arts school in Pittsburgh, is the head chef.

“We try to get away from canned products,” he said, noting the kitchen’s stock of fresh vegetables and meats. One week’s main dishes included leg of lamb, cashew chicken, baked turkey, spaghetti and sloppy joes.

The hot meals are loaded onto two trucks and delivered to four social-service agencies three times a day — a men’s shelter, a women’s shelter, a halfway house for men and a youth shelter. The agencies pay Lutheran Metro for the food service.

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