Students follow Chef Henry Holthaus’ instruction at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.
Image: martha cheng

Cooking for college credit in a program that, like its students, is struggling for survival

For those who profess to be hopeless cooks or find kitchen work tedious, there’s inspiration to be found in a certain culinary course on the Windward side.

“Before, I thought cooking was boring,” says Joanne Liupaono. “I never wanted to learn anything about the kitchen. But now my whole perspective has changed. I really enjoy it, for real. It took me a long time to figure out what I really wanted to do in life. I think this is something I want to do.”

Liupaono and four other female students are turning out fine-dining plates from a kitchen where the knives are anchored to the table. This kitchen is in the Women’s Community Correctional Center, where a culinary program was launched just over a year ago as part of a collaboration between Kapiolani Community College and the Hawaii State Department of Public Safety.

Their goal: to provide the women job skills for when they are released, skills that will hopefully keep them out of prison. While there are other classes offered, such as anger-management, ‘ukulele, creative writing and GED prep, the culinary courses are some of the few that offer college credit.

The classes are taught at the prison by KCC instructors and the women earn credit for the four classes offered, which they can transfer to KCC if they decide to pursue an associates degree when they get out.

Student Natasha Baza says that the classes have changed her relationship to food.

“I could order food really well, and she could burn it really well,” she jokes of her–and Liupaono’s–culinary wherewithal before enrolling.

Now, toward the end of their course, they’ve learned knife skills–like the difference between a dice and a julienne–and at the moment, they’re working on a plated menu with courses like a shaved asparagus and Hamakua mushroom salad, scallop ceviche and roasted pork with mango chutney.

Chef Henry Holthaus has been teaching at KCC for 17 years. He says his instruction time at the prison is as much about teaching students tangible job skills as it is about giving them an opportunity to realize their potential.

“I get the feeling that they’ve just been told ‘no no no’ all their lives,” says Holthaus. “It kind of messes with your overall concept of what’s available in life. What I say is, “Yes, and here are the rules on how to get there. You guys messed up, fix that and do it right.’”

If the instructors’ goal is to boost self-esteem, they appear to be successful; the students’ pride is evident when they talk of the Thanksgiving spread they put together for the approximately 300 inmates and staff at WCCC.

Student Mae Cordeiro brags of the shrimp stuffed with crab and wrapped in bacon and banana crème pie for the lunch, a lunch that some of the staff still rave about.

Holthaus and colleague Warren Uchida, try to duplicate the KCC classes as much as possible, from lectures to demonstrations to hands-on practice. Uchida’s 30-year culinary career has included stints as the executive sous chef at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and banquet chef at the Sheraton Waikiki. He says teaching at the prison is not so different from teaching at KCC.

“It’s not really what you think when you say you’re going to teach at a prison,” he says. “I treat them as I would treat anyone else.”

There are some differences, though, like limited equipment and the more restrictive environment in the prison. While KCC students have access to the Internet, TV, magazines and other students–all avenues through which they can explore culinary possibilities–the women at WCCC don’t have the same advantage. They rely solely on their instructors to provide information.

At both KCC and WCCC, however, what’s unique about cooking classes and professional cooking is the emphasis on shared work and responsibility. Just as a restaurant relies on every person to pull her weight, the students at WCCC have found that whether it’s a banquet for 300 or plated courses for 15, they need each other to get the prep done and the food out. And it isn’t just about cooking.

“It’s about teamwork, and getting along with other people in certain situations that you get in.” says Liupaono. “What are you going to do about it? You gonna make it better, or are you gonna just continue to be a loser?”

Unfortunately, funding for the culinary program, which was allocated by the Legislature, was not renewed this year. Teachers and students who have seen the benefit of the program are hopeful that in the future the classes will pick up again.

“We’re in a setting where a lot of us come from different backgrounds–a lot of us looking to change our lives,” says Baza, who says she plans to attend KCC to finish her culinary education when she is released. “I always wanted to learn about culinary arts, I just didn’t have the guts to, you know. When it was offered here, I thought ‘wow,’ someone actually thought we were special enough to offer it to us. This is awesome. I hope that they restart it so that other inmates get a chance to come and be a part of this.”

Two students from last year’s program are now pursuing associate’s degrees at KCC. Though it’s hard to predict how many students will end up in the culinary field, or whether it’s all enough for them to break the cycle, there’s something powerful about watching women who were previously tentative in the kitchen now sauteeing mushrooms and critiquing the flavor balance of a horseradish vinaigrette–it’s a regular kitchen.

“For the eight hours that we spend in class,” Baza says, “We’re just not even in jail. No one bothers us, it’s just us, our boss and chef.”