Cork Prison hosted a pop-up restaurant for over 50 guests in a first-of-its-kind event for the Prison Service in Ireland.
“The Open Door” restaurant was staffed by six inmates ranging in age from late teens to early 30s.
The prisoners completed an intensive eight-week cooking course under experienced chef and Munster Technology Union lecturer JJ Healy and received their certification on the spot this evening.
It is hoped that the practical culinary skills program, which provides accreditation, will eventually offer some kind of solution to the chronic shortage of chefs in hotels and restaurants across the country.
Earlier, inmates Paolo and Paddy were visibly delighted to cook a menu of four starters, two main courses and a Cork Mess Pavlova dessert for their guests on Rathmore Road.
Paddy said it was heartening to think his time in prison was not wasted.
“Even though we’re incarcerated, we’re in jail, we have to do something about it. We don’t just look back and say ‘what did we do? We did nothing.
“We come out of here with qualifications. We come out of here with experience.”
Paddy emphasized that working with his inspirational mentor, JJ Healy, gave him a window into a world of opportunities that lie ahead.
“Talking to JJ, you learn a lot from him. He’s a wonderful man. Ring the bell. I can’t wait to get out and get into the kitchen.”
Paddy said he hoped to make his family and his girlfriend proud.
He said: “A lot of people think it’s hard to be in prison, but when you get to prison you realize it’s a lot harder on your family. It’s not just you who have to make a pain, it’s everyone who loves everyone who takes care of you.
“When you do what you do to put yourself in jail, you don’t think about anyone but yourself. You have to think about other people.
“My mom, she’s proud. And my girlfriend is proud that I’m doing this. That I’m really going to get something out of this. Because prison isn’t a place no one can come to.”
Meanwhile Paolo, who had far less cooking experience than Paddy when he started the course, said he was excited to learn new skills.
“I learned a lot. The cutting skills and how to do it right. I’m 100% excited about tonight.
A little nervous too. I am looking to do higher education in the hotel industry and then outside and I hope to become a chef.”
Paolo stressed that he is focused on his family going forward, as he knows the pain his incarceration has caused them.
“I personally don’t want to put my family through what they went through. They’re stressed out and worried about me. With the MTU course, they’re now happy with me right now.”
The pop-up restaurant is a collaboration between MTU’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality, IASIO and the Cork Education and Training Board.
Mentor JJ Healy, who taught the culinary course, said giving people a “second chance” is so vital in life.
He said: “Everyone deserves a second chance. You come in. You do your time. Twenty years ago when I was in America, my friend who trained with me was a chef in Washington DC and he m presented to his chef who had trained through the American prison system, it was twenty years ago and it was not considered strange.
“We should do it. We’re imploring people to come into the industry. With the pandemic, it’s a good time for people to get out (of prison) and find jobs because the wages are better, the hours are better and the working conditions are better.”
Mr Healy said all six participants in the program will receive certification tonight after completing a fully approved academic module. He is delighted with the response to the training.
He said: “Coming into prison (to teach) there is a bit of apprehension at first. But that went away after a week after that. I don’t see any difference compared to teaching at university Guys have great interest That’s the only thing you need to have is interest and reliability, the rest will come.
“Tonight they are going to meet people in the industry who are potential employers. Two or three will get jobs tonight because they will be released soon. Chefs are very good at giving people a chance.
“But for the grace of God, any of us could be here. One slip or you could do something. Everyone deserves a second chance.”