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Confessions Of A Quot Sell Out Quot Chef  

Written By Chef Peter Martin


This past fall I found myself unemployed.  With the economy the in the middle of its downward spiral, this was not a good thing.  And being a chef in Wisconsin my prospects were few. 

While job hunting I got a call from a friend who had recently made the jump from the restaurant world into the world of institutional foodservice.  He claimed that he was enjoying his job and the lifestyle it afforded him, and better yet, he knew of a position open in his company working as a food service director for the county jails, and felt I should send in my resume.  I thanked him promising to email my resume while thinking, "no way is this chef going to go work in a jail." 

Over the next few days as I interviewed for a number of positions, I often thought back to that conversation.  Something intrigued me, but I wasn't sure what.  Was it the chance to try something different?  Was it the thought of having nights and weekends off?  Or was it the fact that I might finally get paid what I believed I was worth?  Whatever it was, late one night I found myself emailing my resume to my friend and asking him to forward it on to the powers that be. 

A few days later, I received a call from the Human Resources Department requesting an interview and the rest, as they say, is history. 

How did I, a classically trained chef who has worked in several highly acclaimed restaurants, come to find himself working in a jail?  Surely a job like that is beneath my training and education.  Shouldn't I be running a 5 star restaurant in some major city or own a little place in the country serving the best local organic foods on a highly seasonal menu?  Maybe I should be in those positions but that is not the path I have chosen.  Do some of my "chef" friends consider me a sell-out?  Yes they do, but it doesn't bother me. 

So, you ask, how did I end up here?  Well, that is a long story.

I am a restaurant brat - born and raised.  Some of my earliest memories revolve around restaurant and foodservice kitchens.  When I was 8 years old my parents opened their own restaurant in Vermont.  After watching my parents struggle with their restaurant and eventually having to close it, I swore I would never get involved in the restaurant industry.  Unfortunately though, I had been bitten by the restaurant bug and no matter how hard I tried to escape, I always found myself sucked back into the restaurant world. 

Finally, after having given in to the inevitable, I enrolled in New England Culinary Institute, one of the finest culinary institutions in this country, in my opinion.  Here I received a culinary education based on classic French culinary techniques tempered by modern American sensibilities.  From there I headed south to New Orleans and Atlanta.  There I quickly moved up through the ranks in some of the finest restaurants these towns had to offer.  Within just a couple of years I had gone from an entry level pantry cook to Executive Sous Chef, running some of the top restaurants in Atlanta in the absence of the Executive Chef.  My next move brought me to Chicago, were I helped run a number of high-end, high profile restaurants and one of the larger catering companies which catered high-end parties as large as 2,000-3,000 people. 

It was here in Chicago soon after getting married that I started to question my priorities.  Sure, I was headed in the right direction to become a top name chef or open up my own highly acclaimed restaurant, but at what price?  I was regularly putting in 60, 70, 80 plus hours a week, getting paid a salary that barely made ends meet and missing out on spending time with my wife. 

It was time for a change, so we packed up and headed for Wisconsin. 

In Wisconsin, I branched out and explored a number of different options in the foodservice world.  I spent a few years as I country club chef.  The hours during summer were miserable but late fall through early spring gave myself and my family much needed time together which had been missing from my life.  Unfortunately, I discovered I really didn't care to have 250 "bosses" who all thought they should have input on the menu or how I should run my kitchen. 

So back into the restaurant world I went.  With that I once again watched my hours increase, my pay decrease and my home life start to suffer.  On top of that, unlike in Chicago and Atlanta, there seemed to be no real payoff, no chance of becoming the next, big, new "discovered" talent. 

To be honest, after spending more than 30 years of my 39 year-old life in-and-out of restaurants, I was starting to feel rather burnt out on the whole scene.  It was with this mindset, looking for a change, that I accepted the job running the foodservice operations for a Wisconsin county jail system. 

Technically, I work for a large foodservice company that offers its services to a variety of establishments from hospitals to schools to sports arenas and correctional institutions.  As the Foodservice Director I am in charge of all meals for the County's jail system and senior dining program.  Our kitchen produces food for about 350 inmates which includes breakfast, lunch and dinner.  For the senior dining program we prepare food for approximately 200 lunches, Monday through Friday.  In total that means we serve about 8,000-8,500 meals a week.  To help in this endeavor I have 4 supervisors underneath me who oversee a staff of 6-10 inmates, all of whom do most of the actual cooking. 

The majority of my day is spent doing administrative tasks.  In doing foodservice for jails there is a ton of paperwork to be done.  Besides the standard scheduling and ordering there are numerous forms and papers to be filled out verifying that our food meets nutritional and caloric guidelines.  All of this is tracked along with things such a special, medical, diet requests; cooler temperatures; food temperatures before, during and after service; and of course the number of meals we serve each meal period in order that we can charge the County accordingly.  On top of this there are all the numbers: as part of a large corporation, much of our performance is evaluated on hard, cold numbers.  Did we fulfill our projections?  Did we meet or exceed our budget goals?  This is where my training as a chef can really come into play. 

Where some foodservice managers without a kitchen background see only waste and leftovers to be tossed, I see homemade soup.  The ends of bread loaves can be saved and frozen until we accumulate enough to make stuffing or maybe bread pudding for a special treat for the inmates when they are behaving.  When I have to feed inmates for less than $1.00 per meal, every item I already have and don't need to buy makes a huge difference.  And while the food the inmates get might not be 5 Star cuisine, I bet you'd be amazed at the amount and the quality of food that they receive.  All it takes is bulk buying power, an eye out for ways to eliminate waste and a whole lot of ingenuity.

One of the biggest things I had to learn was how to deal with inmates.  They are both a curse and a godsend.  In my experience most of them are rather decent people who ended up in jail for stupid mistakes.  That being said, I still never let my guard down.  It's not that I'm scared for my life.  I actually feel rather safe in our jail kitchen though I am constantly making sure that all knives and sharp objects are always well secured to the tables. 

It's more the petty theft that keeps me vigilant.  Cookies tend to disappear quite readily as do other food items such as burritos, hot dogs, chicken patties and any other food that is easily concealable.  We are always on the look-out for contraband such as cigarettes, chewing tobacco, drugs, etc.  One thing I learned my first week in jail is that we don't use real vanilla extract.  First, it is more expensive than imitation.  Second, imitation vanilla contains only trace amounts of alcohol whereas real vanilla extract can be upwards of 60-80 proof.  We buy bread mixes if we want to bake bread and rolls from "scratch."  It's not because the inmates can't measure and mix the ingredients for a simple bread dough, rather it's the fact that the pure yeast can be easily slipped out of the kitchen and used to make alcohol back in their cells. 

While those are some of the downsides to working with inmates, there are also some pluses.  You can pretty much count on them being at work, unless medical gives them an excuse.  There are no excuses that their car wouldn't start, that their alarm didn't go off or that they and their girlfriend were fighting.  They have a lot of incentive to come to work everyday and not get fired because it gets them out of their cells and pods.  By working, they can also work time off of their sentence and/or work off some of the bill they will receive from the jail at the end of their incarceration.  Of course, there are always those few who don't "get with the program."  Those individuals quickly work their way back out the door and back into their cells. 

The key to working with inmates is to deal with them sternly but fairly.  I treat them with the same respect that I demand they show to both me and my supervisors.  Am I their friend or buddy?  Absolutely not, but I still treat them as I want to be treated.

Okay, so the job doesn't sound glamorous; it's not.  But then again, not a lot of chef jobs are glamorous.  They sure aren't nearly as glamorous as T.V. would like you to believe. 

Sure I miss many of the creative aspects of the job.  I sure miss the ego boost of working in high profile restaurant, but now I get to spend plenty of time with my wife and my daughter and to me that is more than enough to justify my giving up the other things. 

I also feel better physically.  My stress level is so much lower than it was before.  It's almost a sad commentary that I feel less stress working in a jail than I did when working at high-end restaurants where the pressure is always on to constantly create new and exciting dishes to keep the customers coming back. 
While this job may not be for everyone, I think all too often chefs quickly dismiss institutional foodservice as the "bastard child" of our culinary profession.  I know this to be true because I used to be one such chef. 

My job may not be glamorous but in many ways what I do is much more important than the jobs of chefs who run fancy restaurants.  For these chefs, their most important goal is to make their customers happy so that those customers will return.  For me, I have hundreds of people counting on me to provide them with a well-balanced diet that keeps them healthy and strong. 

If that makes me a "sell out" then so be it; I can hold my head high as I think about the difference I made today . . . and still have time to watch my daughter grow.

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