Chef teaches inmates (Blues Brothers?) at Cook County Jail how to cook, how to live

When it comes to getting a fresh start in life, a jail is probably just about the last place that comes to mind — particularly one as large and with as storied a past as Illinois’ Cook County Jail.

n-BRUNO-large570But a new beginning is exactly what’s being served up these days in Division 11. Bruno Abate, chef and owner of Tocco, a popular Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, has been teaching a cooking class to inmates.

The class, which began last spring, isn’t just about cooking up a perfectly crispy pizza or a zesty marinara. Rather, Abate says the program aims to educate its participants in professionalism and responsibility, and to give them hope for their life beyond the cell — hope that they can secure employment, many of them through Abate’s restaurant, and avoid returning to jail.

“I’m trying to teach them the simple life, that you always have the chance to start again,” the Naples, Italy native told The Huffington Post. “You made a mistake, but this country is a good country to start again as long as you’re strong and you fight for the freedom to make a change in your life.”

Abate, who has lived in Chicago since 1998 and opened Tocco in 2009, starts the program with lessons in food safety and sanitation before moving onto classes centered on nutrition, fresh pasta, pizza, cooking with fresh herbs, baking bread and more. When it comes to utensils that could be used as weapons, namely knives, the implements are tethered to the table when in use and stored in lockboxes when they aren’t.

When I was in jail, it was spoons for every meal. I taught school, and afterwards for awhile, but this program sounds awesome. And I had a lotta love.

Today in 1979, the Blues Brothers hit #1 with Briefcase Full of Blues (yes the clip is from the movie, not the album, which I owned, on vinyl).