Ming Tsai Heads to Billerica for the House of Correction's Culinary Arts Graduation

Delivering commencement speeches is no new task for bigwig chef Ming Tsai — he’s been behind the podium to give the parting words to 500 students at the revered Culinary Institute of America in New York. Last week, though, Tsai delivered a speech that he said was more special: to the 16th graduating class of the Culinary Arts program at the House of Correction in Billerica.“The CIA [Culinary Institute of America] changes lives because it gives people the chance to become a chef,” Tsai said after the event. “But this changes lives because it gives [the inmates] a second chance.”

Since 2006, the Billerica House of Correction, which houses men serving a 2 1/2 year sentence or less, runs an in-house, 12-week culinary arts program for inmates. Since then, more than 200 have graduated. By baking bread, learning knife skills — being a House of Correction, knives are chained to the cutting boards — and making everything from sausages to pasta from scratch, inmates at the HOC learn math by doing recipe conversions and teamwork by having to function in a kitchen environment. In short, by the end of the intensive program, they gain a skill set that can turn their lives around upon release.

“I think this is the first time many of these men get to build confidence to work as part of a team, and to build relationships to be quite honest,” says Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. “When these men graduate, they won’t be a bunch of individuals, they will be one unit.”

The majority of the inmates are there as a result of drug and alcohol abuse and mental health problems, Koutoujian says.“They tend to be underskilled, undereducated, underemployed. These are all ingredients in a recipe for problems,” he says. Those that meet a certain combination of education and therapy requirements are eligible to apply for the chance to leave their cells, and inmate uniforms, in exchange for a toque and a chef coat for several hours a day.

We headed to Billerica last Wednesday to watch the graduation in action — some of the 15 men in the 16th graduating class got to sit through graduation with their toddlers in their laps, while their families all watched them receive a certificate of participation from the partnered Shawsheen Valley Technical High School, as well as 12 college credits toward Middlesex Community College. Tsai’s visit was the most high-profile appearance at a culinary arts graduation ceremony, and starstruck families of the inmates lined up for autographs and photos afterward.

Most inmate graduates end up with steady positions at chains like The 99 and Macaroni Grill, but some have even gone on to open their own cafes. Tsai told us after the event that he’s open to hiring recent grads at Blue Ginger. “I don’t care if someone has been in prison. I don’t care about yesterday. All I care about is do you work hard, and do you have a base skill set —and they have gone through 12 weeks, so they have a base skill set,” he told us after the event. “I would love to give someone a second chance. I have hired people out of prison before. I don’t judge.”

For a peek into the graduation ceremony and excerpts from Tsai’s speech, check out our slide show above.

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