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Author of ‘Jailhouse Cooking’ Teaches ACI Inmates: Celebrity Chef Bill Tribelli Preparing Offenders for Food Service Careers

Bill Tribelli has gotten a good deal of press for his role as a Culinary Arts instructor at the Rhode Island Training School and the author of Jailhouse Cooking: The Poor Man’s Guide to Cooking, but something less known about Bill is the many hours he spends teaching inmates about food safety and culinary arts at the Adult Correctional Institutions, preparing them for a variety of positions in the food service industry upon their release.

You’ll find Bill at one of the five adult prisons where he teaches every Saturday and three nights of the week. That’s on top of his work at the Training School and as a “restaurant specialist” with his business, Tribelli Consulting. Bill began teaching at the ACI a year ago as an instructor for the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), with which the Rhode Island Department of Corrections has a contract to provide its educational training for offenders. When he first began, Bill admits, “I wondered – who the heck will hire them?” but his mind has since been changed. “It’s really opened my eyes,” he says of his experience teaching adult inmates, adding, “I found it rewarding and encouraging that some of my students from the prisons were chefs, and in several cases executive chefs, prior to their incarceration, and upon completion of their sentence have been able to return to their old positions.”

Bill teaches CCRI’s Food Safety Managers Certification class every Saturday. He has 10 groups of 15 students enrolled in the 21-hour class, held on three consecutive Saturdays. When one group completes the class, another begins. All restaurants and caterers are required by state law to have one employee who has this certification for every 10 of its employees. The state mandates 15 hours of training, so Bill is actually providing inmates with an additional six hours over what’s required. Students take a national exam, and all 14 of the last group to take it passed with grades in the high 80s and 90s. Graduates receive a CCRI certificate stating that they attended the class and certification from the National Restaurant Association indicating that they have passed the exam and noting test results. They can then apply to the State of Rhode Island and for a $50 fee will receive a certificate good for three years.

Some of the topics covered in the class include proper cleaning and sanitation of food, how to “hold” and store product, proper temperatures, and more. “Often it’s not cooks but servers or bartenders who cross-contaminate,” Bill notes, pointing out the practicality of the course material.

In addition to the Food Safety course, Bill also teaches Culinary Arts in the women’s facilities and is going to begin teaching the TIPS course for servers. The class does not involve inmates in preparing or touching alcohol but provides instruction on liquor laws, server liability, how to shut someone off, etc. “We’re trying to get them to be job ready,” he notes, adding that even those who won’t be getting out for a few years are able to sit in on the class and get their certification later, when their release is more imminent.

Bill believes there is a real demand for ex-offenders with the proper certification and skills to work in the restaurant and catering field. “These aren’t jobs where they’ll be out on the floor handling money in a dining room,” he notes, adding, “There are lots of good behind-the-scenes jobs out there. College graduates with culinary degrees want more money and prestige, but there are lots of men and women leaving prison who just need a decent, steady job that will keep them from the downward spiral that might bring them back and will enable them to support their families.”

The catch is finding employers who are willing to give ex-offenders a chance. Bill has relationships in the industry and believes there are those out there who are willing to give someone trying to get back on their feet after incarceration a break. One example is Billy Pinelli, owner of the Pinelli-Marra Restaurant Group, who believes that “Everyone deserves a second chance.” Bill Tribelli emphasizes, “They need to know, however, that they must show up every day and be willing to work hard.” Bill would like to see the RIDOC create a full-time position for someone with his skills and experience to go out and find positions for those leaving prison, but knows that is unlikely given the state’s fiscal situation.

For inmates in the state’s two adult male Medium Security facilities, men’s Minimum, and the two women’s facilities, food safety and culinary classes are in high demand. “It’s a mandatory certification that’s not difficult to achieve,” Bill notes, adding “and you need it if you’re going to be responsible for people.” Many of his students are doing time for domestic or drug-related charges. He finds they are much better students and far more mature than the youthful offenders he works with at Training School, largely because they have reached a point in their lives where they are tired of making self-destructive choices and ready to turn their lives around.

Bill’s ACI courses have wound down for the time being but will pick up again in September. Chances are they will all have waiting lists as inmates thinking about life after prison seek to create a more hopeful future.

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