The menu was impressive: spiced corn cakes with avocado lime salsa, crispy shrimp spring rolls, Asian dumplings, sliced mozzarella with grilled eggplant and basil, grilled salmon with black bean and corn salsa, and, for dessert, cocoa loco -- one bite cupcakes with chocolate ganache.
So were the chefs: 12 men and women enrolled in a culinary and college-readiness program offered jointly by Holyoke Community College and the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. The group spent the last Saturday in January in the HCC Culinary Arts kitchen, preparing dinner for their own graduation celebration, one they would share with about 60 family members and friends.
At the ceremony, along with their certificates of completion, each graduate received a white chefs hat and coat.
"I'm very proud of myself," said Luis*, a 38-year-old from Springfield. "My kids are happy for me too."
Luis was released from jail in 2008 and found his way into the program through AISS, the Sheriff's Department's "After Incarceration Support Systems." Every Saturday for 15 weeks, he and the other students -- all recently incarcerated or incarcerated and soon-to-be released -- took a "Strategies for College Success" class and received training in food service operations and culinary arts.
The first seven weeks were held at the pre-release center at the Hampden County House of Corrections in Ludlow; the last eight weeks were at HCC.
"The goal of the course is to do two things," said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development. "One is to give them some skills and experience and confidence, which will be helpful in landing them a job when they are released. Food service is an area where there are opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals. Once they get a job, they should feel confident they know what they are doing, which is equally important."
"On top of that," he added, "we're doing the reading, the writing, the math, the strategies for college success, understanding expectations at the college level, how to read a textbook, how to behave in a classroom, because we also want them to think about pursuing further education, perhaps getting a certificate or degree at HCC."
That's exactly what Sabrina* would like to do. The 37-year-old from Springfield, who will complete a seven-year jail term for larceny in August, said she has tried to take advantage of every program the jail offers so she will be better prepared for release.
"I finished high school, but I never went to college," she said. "But by me being incarcerated and taking this opportunity to do culinary, it gave me other ideas. I want to do something that I know I am going to enjoy doing."
In jail, she said she spent a lot of time reading in the law library. Her plan is to study criminal justice at HCC.
The program has been funded in the past by a state grant. The Sheriff's Department provides transportation from the Ludlow jail and the women's correctional facility in Chicopee, tutoring during the week, and job placement. HCC provides instructors for the academic portion and the culinary skills training. Everyone who completes the program earns a ServSafe certificate and OSHA 10 card, which show they have been trained in safe food handling and workplace safety.
HCC and the Sheriff's Department have run the program twice so far, with a third group starting tomorrow, March 5. Dunkelberg said 25 students have completed the program.
Luis is already taking two classes at HCC, culinary math and hospitality management. Ultimately, he said he would like to get his Culinary Arts certificate and then open a food business.
"I'm just taking it step by step," he said.
* The names of the class participants have been changed at the request of the Sheriff's Department
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) HCC's Kermit Dunkelberg talks to "Sabrina," a student in HCC's Culinary and College Readiness program, a joint effort with the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. (Right) Students in the Culinary and College Readiness program prepare a dinner celebration for their family and friends. (Thumbnail) A student prepares a grilled eggplant and mozzarella dish for a dinner celebration.