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How I Went From Prison Cook to Pizza Chef at One of Philly’s Best New Restaurants

BA: Michael Carter | September 14, 2021

Cooking was something I was passionate about because I was passionate about eating. It’s a family thing. On my mother’s side we had these big family reunions. We’d go to New Haven, Baltimore, Philly, or Norfolk, Virginia—that’s where my relatives migrated to from the South. We’d have these yearly gatherings, and whenever it was in Philly, I was eager to be involved. We’d figure out who would cook what, who was getting the permit for where we’d cook outdoors. Cooking was in me. I was registered to go to a restaurant school, but it didn’t work out initially because I was locked up from ages 16 to 19.

I ended up at the New Jersey Training School for Boys, a juvenile detention facility, for armed robbery and home invasion. A big part of my experience being there was feeding myself and others. The food was subpar. In the juvenile system you go to school for half the day and work the other half. But once you have enough credits, you don’t have to go to school anymore. So I was always in the kitchen. I was cooking all day, presenting meals to everyone. I made little sandwiches composed of ingredients that convicts don’t usually get, like chicken breast, because they’re reserved for correctional officers. Usually we’d get generic chicken patties. So when no one was looking, I’d take some fried chicken breast, lettuce, and tomato. We called them swags.

When I came home I wanted to keep cooking. So I signed up for restaurant school and got my first cooking job, working for a guy named Charles Casmirri who had a catering contract with PECO, a Philadelphia energy company. My mom worked for PECO, and she told this guy I was interested in cooking. So he hired me. It was fast-paced short-order cooking. Guys working on the electrical lines in the city wanted breakfast fast. I loved it.

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