ST. CHARLES TOWNSHIP – Holding a white-handled paring knife, chef Porfirio Roman-Ramirez showed his class of five how to cut bell peppers to the right size for roasting.
“Not too big, not too small,” Roman-Ramirez said as he sliced the peppers into a colorful mound.
Then he demonstrated how to cut green and yellow zucchini squash – down the middle, then in alternating directions, also bite-size.
“Cut the same way,” Roman-Ramirez said, as the knife snicked its way through the zucchinis.
It was the same the mushrooms and the red onion. He grabbed a handful of asparagus and chopped the stalks into thirds.
But this is not your usual cooking class.
For one, it’s held in the Kane County jail kitchen, so there’s only one knife.
And the students – Todd Bedgood of Algonquin, Lamar Davidson of Aurora, Dennis M. Woods of St. Charles Township and Ronnie Martinez of Oswego – are all detainees in the Kane County jail for non-violent drug or alcohol offenses.
All went through the Recovery Pod, the jail section the sheriff has turned into an addiction treatment facility. Lighthouse Recovery of St. Charles provides the treatment, re-entry support and continued group counseling once detainees are released from custody.
And now they are learning a trade to assist them in getting jobs after their release.
For his part, Roman-Ramirez is an actual chef, who was charged in 2019 with felony possession of cocaine with intent to deliver.
Sheriff Ron Hain said after Roman-Ramirez also went through the Recovery Pod, he was released on electronic monitoring in August. And he now works for the sheriff’s office teaching the cooking classes.
“I made a wrong decision,” Roman-Ramirez said, as he chopped and sliced. “I got in trouble. I made a mistake and now I’m starting over.”
The class just started Dec. 13 and meets twice a week for two hours. On this, the second class session, he showed his students not to waste any of the cuff-off veggie ends, as they will be used to flavor gravy.
Woods collected the cut-off pieces and put them into pans.
Then Roman-Ramirez spooned most of a big jar of basil pesto, into a bowl, adding thyme, rosemary, pine nuts and garlic. And he began whisking it with olive oil.
“You’re going to make a pesto paste,” he said.
Then Martinez took over the whisking, his wrist a blur as he swirled the pungent green pesto until it was smooth.
The veggies were then spread out on a large tray and the pesto paste was stirred over all of them – then into an oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. It would be enough to feed eight to 10 people, he said.
While the vegetables roast, he showed them how to make a brown gravy using the ends of the vegetables that he cut off. That way, nothing gets wasted.
While the students took turns stirring the gravy, Woods turned to Hain.
“What you did for us – this is an inspiration,” Woods said.
When the tray of roasted vegetables in pesto sauce came out of the oven, the chef, the students, nearby corrections officers and Hain all stepped up for a taste.
The chef level class was a continuation of a food safety course Aramark did for detainees in June, Hain said.
“The ultimate goal is to open a restaurant out of the jail kitchen for the public to access,” Hain said.
He envisions that the restaurant could be set up in the foyer of the sheriff’s office that leads to the jail with round tables and white tablecloths that would fit about 40 people.
It would only be offered on a Friday or Saturday night once a month.
“My vision is to offer food prepared in the jail kitchen made by detainees at chef level,” Hain said. “We may call it Inn Recovery.”