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Nonprofit in New York trains formerly incarcerated people to work in food industry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People released from prison often struggle to find jobs. A nonprofit in Syracuse, N.Y., is looking to change that by training formerly incarcerated people to become line cooks. Here's Ava Pukatch of member station WRVO.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Coming down hot.

AVA PUKATCH, BYLINE: A Syracuse test kitchen is bustling as Chef Joseph Bilecki is teaching the kitchen brigade the essentials of grilling. Today's lesson - pork chops. A message on the whiteboard of the kitchen reads, I am not now that I once was. Bilecki says it's kind of like the mission statement of the Center for Community Alternatives program.

JOSEPH BILECKI: The food service industry doesn't really care what you did. They care that you show up, you show up on time and you do your job. That's what matters.

PUKATCH: And Bilecki says a lot of people don't realize how easy cooking can be. Once they learn some of the basic techniques, things start to come together. The food tastes good, and he watches the formerly incarcerated people stand a little taller in his kitchen. Now he has them hooked.

BILECKI: I'm just going to get that so it's straight across there.

PUKATCH: In the very first lesson, they made chicken alfredo. Larenz Coker-Hawkins was amazed at how much flavor they got from just a few ingredients.

LARENZ COKER-HAWKINS: All we used was pepper. That's it - a pinch of pepper, no other seasonings. And it tasted amazing. And it just, like, kind of blew my mind. I'm like, if I could do that with just that, I could do a whole lot.

PUKATCH: As Regina Brunelli roasts carrot strips in the oven, she dreams of going to culinary school and eventually opening her own diner.

REGINA BRUNELLI: It's Margie's Cup. It's after my grandmother.

PUKATCH: She says the kitchen has an understanding.

BRUNELLI: These are people that already have a past, so not judgy people, kind of been through some of the similar - same things, you know what I mean? And we understand each other, and we know we're not here to judge each other on our past, but help each other build a future.

PUKATCH: Coker-Hawkins is grilling his pork chop, getting it to the optimal 145-degree internal temperature. After the program, he's hoping to get a job at a popular barbecue restaurant.

COKER-HAWKINS: When you're a felon, you don't know - you don't really know your opportunities or what's out there. I want to get myself in a better position, so better positions, better money. Let me just try the line cook thing out. And plus, you learn how to cook while you're here too, so I'm doing stuff at home now too.

PUKATCH: There's a smile across Coker-Hawkins' face as he plates the food, standing the roasted carrots up against the mashed potatoes and pouring an apple chutney over his pork chop. Bilecki knows more than half of formerly incarcerated people are unable to find stable employment in their first year after release. He says watching folks gain that new level of confidence and the ability to carry themselves as professionals is a win for him, and he ultimately hopes to get all participants full-time positions.

BILECKI: Recidivism - 50% of people are likely to go back within five years. You can cut that in half with a full-time job. If we can have people get jobs out of here, it's a lot less people going back to prison.

PUKATCH: Even equipped with skills, there are other barriers to entering the workforce, like transportation. Here in Syracuse, some city buses stop running before the kitchen staff can head home for the night.

For NPR News, I'm Ava Pukatch in Syracuse, N.Y.

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Ava Pukatch