A couple of weeks ago I received a very special invitation to a very exclusive five course gourmet lunch that is only held about once a year. It is always held in the same place at South Lake Tahoe, in a small, but uniquely decorated dining room with only eight chairs.
After being announced, I was escorted in and asked to leave my cell phone outside. Then I was escorted through another locked door into the dining room.
The table in the room was carefully and correctly set with nice dinnerware and golden flatware, and each place setting had a napkin carefully folded into a bird and a menu for the lunch.
Soon the other seven diners arrived and, after we introduced ourselves, the “hosts” arrived and poured us water and iced tea.
The menu, which was prepared special for the occasion, listed what we were going to be served: Appetizer – Flat Bread with Tomatoes, Basil and Mozzarella; Soup – Chicken Gnocchi Soup; Salad – Mixed Greens with Raspberry Dressing; Entree – a choice of Homemade meat Lasagna or Chicken and Vegetables with Homemade Spinach Fettuccini and, for dessert – Chilled Strawberry Soup.
Not on the menu, but brought in during the meal, were unbelievably good cheese bread sticks made from laminated puff pastry. There was nearly a fight over who could take the leftovers home, of which there were only a couple.
The name of each chef or group of chefs that prepared each dish was inscribed on the menu and on the wall were pictures of them working on the dishes.
Okay, I know you are saying it. What a meal. It’s another of those fabulous wine dinners, isn’t it. So, what wines did they pair with the dishes? The answer is one word: none. And there is a very simple reason for that.
The chefs, who prepare and serve the meal are all students in the culinary classes at the El Dorado County Jail at South Lake Tahoe and the meal is served there, inside the jail.
I was first introduced to the culinary arts program when its founder and Correctional Cook Supervisor at the jail, Jeannette Shippee, entered their baked goods at the El Dorado County Fair, a competition in which I am one of the judges. She holds a culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University, has been working at the jail for 23 years and, in addition to teaching at the jail, also teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College. But that day she was there for the students at the jail, quietly sitting in the back of the room with some friends and writing down every comment the judges made to take back to them. When one of them won a ribbon, you could see the smile light up on her face.
That was a few years ago, and every year since she has been bringing more and more entries, most of which win ribbons. After the competition, she takes the ribbons they have won and the judges’ comments back to the jail. The ribbons, now numbering over 70, are proudly hung on a wall outside the kitchen.
“We started the program in conjunction with Lake Tahoe Community College in 2007,” said Shippee. “I remember the exact date because it was the date of the Angora fire, June 24.
“The program is open to any inmate who qualifies and it teaches them not only all the kitchen skills, but also life skills.
‘When we started, we had to have eight people in the class, but with some being released, it often dropped below that number. Now they each sign up for 100 to 500 hours of classes, which we hold four days a week. Upon completion they receive the very important Serv Safe Food Manager Certification, college credit and a certificate from the college.
“We have some really talented people who have completed our classes and we do everything we can to find them employment. We don’t have a real good way of tracking them, but I have always said, ‘If we can save one, it will all be worth it,’ and I know we have done that.”
In addition to the annual gourmet lunch, which they laughingly call C. U. F. F. S., which stands for Criminals United For Food Service, they have a catering service they call, “So Good it’s a Crime.” It works with the local non-profit organizations and is very busy. Any profits go back to the community.
“We are trying to change the impression the community has of the inmates,” continued Shippee, “and it is working because of all this community involvement.”
Back to the meal, it was fantastic and you could see the pride on the faces of the inmate chefs as they served each dish. We, the diners, were given two instructions: enjoy the meal and you must give feedback, good or bad, so that they can learn.
There was a lot of enjoyment and positive feedback, and only a few comments like, “It needed a little more salt.”
I am sure you can tell, it was one of the best meals I have eaten in a long time and as good as any I have had at some very fancy restaurants.
The County Jail in Placerville has recently started a similar program. It is programs like these that need community support.
By the way, last year one of the inmate chefs entered a lacy Florentine cookie which, as far as I am concerned, was the best baked item I judged, and it was baked at altitude. I have heard that person is looking for a job.
Again, this is a great program that I believe more people should know about and support. For more information you can call Shippee at 530-573-3038.