A banquet at the Big House
Ryan Summerlin January 27, 2013
The inmates at the Summit County Jail are gaining weight. John, a 25-year-old facing robbery charges, blames it on the baked ziti.
“I came in at 185,” he said. “I’m 210 right now.”
John isn’t complaining. He loves the food.
“It’s food you’d pay for on the outside,” he said. “It’s better than what I was eating when I was out of here. It’s not just baloney sandwiches.”
Having recently been in the jails in Delta and Garfield counties, John is something of a mess hall connoisseur. He knows what he’s talking about when he sends his compliments to the chef.
“The food’s better here,” he said.
Each year, the Breckenridge-based lock-up will house as many as 1,500 guests. All told, there are 94 beds to go around. The inmates are grouped in “pods,” which are clusters of cells encircling a common area.
At the very center of the pods are picnic tables. That’s where the inmates eat together, three times a day.
There are no bars – just lots of remotely locked doors and safety glass under the constant surveillance of corrections officers and more than 40 cameras. There is no privacy and not much ambiance, but, in a culinary sense, those plastic, bolted-down benches are the most exclusive tables in Summit County.
There are good reasons why inmates call it the Breck Hilton.
Chef Rick Wojcik trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He’s worked in pizza joints, country clubs and hotels. He’s cooked in some of Breckenridge’s finest kitchens.
However, the Connecticut native’s biggest challenge as a chef has been coming up with dishes that people can eat with a spork.
Without silverware, linguine is a disaster. A pork chop without a knife? A shocking regression to our basest nature.
The last thing you want, Wojcik explained, is an inmate eating with his bare hands, so cook accordingly.
Another rule the chef has learned over his 11 years in the jail kitchen: Don’t run out of biscuits on biscuits-and-gravy Wednesday. There will be hell to pay.
As Wojcik explains it, the inmates set their schedule by his meals.
The menu rotates a few times a month, but on one recent week, Wojcik served up fried chicken, pork carnitas and penne pasta with chicken for dinner; BLTs, gyros and grilled ham and cheese for lunch; and pancakes, French toast and donuts for breakfast.
Wojcik doesn’t want the menu to get stale, but he also wants to keep crowd favorites – like John’s beloved baked ziti – in the rotation. It’s a delicate balance, he said, especially when inmates aren’t the only customers.
Inmates, jailers, judges and court clerks – they all puts orders in to Chef Wojcik.
Cpt. Erik Bourgerie has worked for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office for 16 years. Most of his tenure has been spent in the jail, which he now runs with the meticulous nature of a five-star hotelier. So when he was planning a wedding back in 2002, he knew just who to call for catering.
“I made that choice because I knew he was an excellent chef,” he said. “I’d been eating his food for a number of years. I knew the quality was going to be good because I experienced that quality every day when I worked.”
Jail staff can bring their own lunch, he said, but many of them prefer to eat the same food as the inmates.
“The food’s awesome,” said Sgt. R. Hochmuth. “This is a lot better than in the Marines.”
Wojcik says there are important differences between a jail kitchen and a restaurant kitchen. In a jail kitchen, you count the knives and lock them up at the end of a shift.
You can’t keep some basic culinary staples on hand – yeast, for example – because inmates might use it to make moonshine.
Food isn’t served on fine china, but in deep, oatmeal-colored plastic trays. Those trays are then placed into a large, steel warmer that an inmate volunteer will wheel into a pod. The food is taken out of the warmer and the inmates are released from their cells. Then, they eat together, like families.
The economics of a jail kitchen are different, too.
“There’s a budget I have to deal with,” Wojcik said. “It’s not just ‘Oh, we can raise our prices.'”
Labor costs, on the other hand, are cheap.
Wojcik relies exclusively on trustees, the name given to inmates who earn special privileges through good behavior.
Wojcik takes them under his wing and teaches them to cook. Simple things, like how to cut an onion properly, can open up a world of possibility for someone who has hit rock bottom. He likes teaching people. More importantly, he likes the inmates’ reaction to his cooking.
“For a lot of people who come here it’s better than what they eat on the outside,” he said. “I feel bad for some of these guys. It’s tough being here,”
That’s why he looks forward to special occasions, like Super Bowl Sunday, when he’ll smoke chickens and rib racks at his home and bring them in for the inmates. That’s why he’ll prepare an elaborate Thanksgiving spread of turkey, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce and “the whole nine yards.”
“The way I look at it is, I cook three banquets a day,” Wojcik said.
Sheriff John Minor, whose department operates the jail, sees it as giving inmates “a little piece of home.”
Both Bourgerie and Minor are proud of the way they treat inmates. As the sheriff is quick to point out, “most of these guys haven’t been convicted of a damn thing.” As a result, the inmates are seen almost as guests – guests who are innocent until proven guilty.
There is, however, an underlying motive to all of this jailhouse hospitality.
“We really use food as a management tool,” Cpt. Bourgerie said. “So giving them really good, nutritious meals, we’ve found, has tended to lower violence in the facility and reduce disciplinary issues.”
He said the facility sees about one to two inmate fights a year. He attributes that to the hearty food.
“If you keep them full, they’re not going to be as agitated,” he said. “They’re going to be more satisfied with their surroundings.”
Wojcik stakes his pride on the quality of the food he serves.
“I care what the product is that goes out of here,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent of the food I’ll eat. Two percent I wouldn’t eat anywhere.”
He said he’s not a fan of refried beans or chili, both of which are in the meal rotation.
One meal that no one wants, however, is Nutraloaf, also known as prison loaf.
It’s what an inmate gets if they misbehave. It’s the antithesis of the food Wojcik cooks up. It’s a management tool – made up of ground beef, eggs, potatoes carrots and powdered milk. It contains little to no seasoning.
Under certain circumstances, Wojcik said he would eat it. “If I was starving.”
However, the jail’s strategy of giving inmates a bit of Breckenridge-style warmth in the bleakest of times appears to be paying off: Wojcik hasn’t had to serve up Nutraloaf for disciplinary reasons in years.
But if he did, he said he might add just a little salt.