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At a Rikers Island school, inmates turn into "cheftestants"

A clock ticked down, and two teams of women in chef’s jackets scurried around a kitchen, rolling pastry dough and sauteing fish. Corn chowder simmered on a stove and buttermilk biscuits baked in the oven. When the clock hit zero, the anxious cooks presented their creations to accomplished visiting chefs, who tallied their judgments of the meals’ creativity and flavor.

But many of today’s “cheftestants” may have to wait a while to fulfill their culinary dreams — for now, they are incarcerated students at the city’s Island Academy school at Riker’s Island correctional facility. This cooking contest was part of one of their classes, and the chief celebrity judge was Alain Sailhac, the former dean of the French Culinary Institute.

The city runs two schools on Riker’s Island. The Island Academy enrolls mainly students between the ages of 16 and 18, while the other school, Horizon Academy, serves slightly older students. Both schools operate in several locations throughout the detention facilities on the island, with sites for male students awaiting sentencing, a second for men who have already been sentenced and a third for all of the female students.

At Island Academy, all of the teenage students are required to take the culinary arts class, along with English, math and science courses. Adult inmates can also choose to take courses at the school.

The school has offered the cooking program for more than a decade, but today was the first time it became a contest. Of the roughly 50 female students enrolled in the program, two teams of six students each made it to the final round today. It came down to a battle of the ages — an team of teenage students matched up against a team of adults.

Mark Sauerhoff, a chef who launched the school’s culinary arts program and who now teaches the adolescent classes, said that the class allows the students to temporarily step away from the reality of their confinement.

“When they enter my room, Rikers stays out,” Sauerhoff said. “They enter ‘Sauerhoff-land.’ All the beefs, all the issues stay outside.”

“When they come in my room, they are culinary students,” he added. “Period.”

Culinary arts is particularly well-matched to the Rikers Island programs, Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro said. Of the 100,000 people who pass through Rikers Island each year, 85 percent are released instead of being transferred to state correctional facilities. The cooking program provides a “forward-looking approach” to inmates’ education, Schriro said, giving instruction that students can jump into mid-stream and that gives them skills they can use when they leave.

One of the teen students, Ricka, 18, said that Sauerhoff has been helping her research Manhattan culinary schools and training programs to apply to when she is released. She anticipates being released soon, after having been at Rikers since November on arson charges. In the kitchen, Ricka said, she found a team spirit and resilience that has been missing elsewhere in her life in the detention center.

“You know what [Sauerhoff] taught me? That when you cook and you mess up, you can always fix it,” she said. “That’s the point of cooking.”

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