On the Inside

Photo by Terence Duffy
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chef dave nelson

How a cooking class for inmates is changing lives.

Chef Dave Nelson has taught the ins and outs of the restaurant industry to countless people from all walks of life during his long career in hospitality. Perhaps that’s why his most recent gig as a culinary instructor to inmates at Folsom Women’s Facility is such a natural fit.

“Culinary teaching is just in my DNA. I’ve worked in kitchens for 30 years, and I worked with plenty of ex-cons back in the day,” says Nelson, who was unfazed by the idea of working in a prison. “Sure, I was a little nervous about safety protocols, but I set very clear boundaries on day one. I tell them I’m here to get knowledge into your head and that’s all I care about.”

Through a program run by the California Prison Industry Authority in partnership with Cosumnes River College, Nelson and his colleagues teach all the hands-on skills that a person would need to thrive as a manager or owner of a commercial kitchen. Students learn not only how to make a perfect beurre blanc and stock a breakfast buffet, but also the finer points of restaurant finance, food safety and customer service.

“The women know that the curriculum is no joke and that I take it seriously,” says Nelson. “I make them work pretty darn hard. It’s not just a Suzy Homemaker home economics class.”

Nelson does not delve into students’ pasts. “They are just like any student I’ve had over the years. There’s no difference to me, and I think that’s the source of our mutual respect,” says Nelson. He believes the program is making a difference in the lives of his students. “They learn what cooking actually is and how the techniques tie together,” he says. “Even if they never get into a restaurant career—which they very well could because I’m teaching solid skills here—this will do good. Even if they just eat better, I will feel that is a victory.”

There are more perks to the program than just learning how to cook. “Let’s face it, prison food is not great. In class they get to taste food they don’t normally get to taste,” says Nelson. “We might need to compare, say, a New York steak with a rib-eye, so I’ll buy one of each and they’ll each get to taste one bite, but that one bite is huge to them.”