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3 Cooks in Prison Honed Creativity with Drab Ingredients–Now Out, Award-Winning Chef And Businessmen

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“There are geniuses in there,” said 2-time James Beard Award winner, Keith Corbin, referring to incarcerated men and their ability to cook with the most lifeless, flavorless ingredients imaginable.

Corbin spent 10 years in prison himself, and combined with his career as an award-winning chef at his restaurant Alta Adams, he knows what it takes to make good food out of anything.

Corbin was profiled in a feature piece at the Guardian that twisted together the stories of several entrepreneurs who launched careers in the food industry after more than a decade of smoking sausages in a toilet with toilet paper, or making tamal dough with ground-up Fritos.

Another of the featured ex-cons was Chef Michael Carter, executive at Down North Pizza in Philidelphia where he employs only formerly incarcerated men, or returning citizens as he called them, and offers them half-way or low-income housing with the apartment building located above his pizza shop.

His pies, mostly square ones, have made the New York Times best pizza list, and won the Best of Philly 2021 category for square pie.

After Carter was released from a 12-year sentence, he took a class for resume writing for food professionals and was asked what experience he had. He replied he had cooked in prison for 2,000—he got a job the next week.

“The mission is actually what made me accept the job,” Carter said, “to be able to have a voice and tell people about the plight in our community of returning citizens.”

It’s something that both Carter and Corbin reported to Sonya Singh at the Guardian—that prison squeezes men, and that squeeze sometimes creates diamonds.

“You have people in there that literally never went to school for technology, but the phone breaks and they’ll figure out how to fix the motherboard,” Corbin said. “There’s geniuses in there, ingenuity.”

Corbin, on the other hand, went into prison with a deep connection to food. His grandmother grew tomatoes and collard greens in their yard, and would wake up at 5 a.m. to start cooking for the working people in her community.

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