Last week I attended “Breaking Bread Behind Bars,” an extraordinary dinner at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution (aka prison). It was an evening of hope in second chances to pursue dreams inspired by passions. The inmates who prepared our meal and with whom we dined were in the culinary program. They envisioned prospective culinary careers that would fulfill their passions for food.
The dinner was a part of the MidAtlantic Wine and Food Festival (MAWFF), held every year in Wilmington, DE. This year’s festival included 33 events in 4 states and featured 70 chefs and 23 wineries from six continents. The 4-day event was the brainchild of my husband Ajit George, whose passion is food and wine and who has great strengths in building a community around visions such as this with others who have similar passions.
This particular dinner was also the dream of former Chef Matt Haley, who, after his release from prison and after overcoming his substance abuse, built a restaurant empire SoDel Concepts with eight restaurants, a catering company, and a food truck that employed over 500 people. Matt used to say that the culinary industry was one of the few industries that would hire ex-prisoners and that he owed his life and his livelihood to the restaurant owners who gave him a second chance when he was first released from prison. He found that the vocation was his passion and that he had great strengths that allowed him to be successful in the field. He went on to become Delaware’s only James Beard winner.
Matt told Ajit at the conclusion of the 2014 festival that he wanted to do one of the MAWFF dinners in 2015 inside one of Delaware’s prisons. His goals for this dinner were to encourage and honor inmates who were taking advantage of the prison’s culinary arts program and to enlist the support of people on the outside who might help and support them when they were released. Unfortunately, Matt died as a result of a motorcycle accident near the border of India and Nepal in August of 2014. But his dream lived on due to an amazing partnership between his successor at SoDel Concepts, Scott Kammerer; Robert Coupe, the Delaware Commissioner of Corrections; and Ajit George, founder of the MAWFF.
Sixty people gathered at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution for this awesome dinner in the courtyard of the facility. Twelve women in the advanced culinary program worked alongside the professional chefs from SoDel Concepts to prepare the food. They then joined the other guests at the table for dinner. The more junior members of the Baylor culinary program worked alongside the SoDel Concepts professional servers to actually serve the meal.
As part of the program, we all viewed Matt’s TEDx video.
which described his dreams and passions, how he had followed those passions in his life, and how he had overcome fears and the low self esteem he had upon leaving prison. There were then amazing and inspiring talks from the Governor of Delaware, Jack Markell, and Delaware’s junior U. S. Senator, Chris Coons. Senator Coons reminded us all that ours is a nation of second chances and that this evening was a testament to that. The women who were “residents” at Baylor in the culinary program were taking full advantage of the opportunity to follow their passions and to create a new life for themselves when they left prison. We heard stories about these dreams and how they, too, were overcoming fears, substance abuse, and self-esteem issues to pursue their passions. One woman shared with us her goal to own a food truck called the Dragon Wagon. I have no doubt she will be successful and that she will find financial support from those who dined with her that night.
We were all touched by the inmate’s stories. These were amazing stories of hope. We all were already living their amazing second chances with them. We were inspired by their stories of victories over barriers to success.
When Warden Wendi Caple capped off the evening, she reminded us that there, but by the grace of God, went all of us. We could have been there ourselves in Baylor Correctional Institution for lack of being able to post bail. She reminded us that we could take any situation and turn it into hopes and dreams for the future, as were the participants in the culinary program.
In the courtyard where we dined were some herb gardens. But what Baylor wanted was to expand this growing opportunity with the addition of a greenhouse. Within 3 minutes we raised the $20K needed for that greenhouse—providing additional opportunities for others at Baylor to realize their dreams as well.
Lives were transformed that night. Everyone at this dinner, the visitors as well as the residents, left with their bellies and their hearts filled. That is what happens when we all support each other in overcoming barriers to pursuit of passions. . . and when we believe in second chances.