BRECKENRIDGE The inmates at the Summit County Jail are gaining weight. John, a 25-year-old facing robbery charges, blames it on the baked ziti.
I came in at 185, he said. Im 210 right now.
John isnt complaining. He loves the food.
Its food youd pay for on the outside, he said. Its better than what I was eating when I was out of here. Its not just baloney sandwiches.
Having recently been in the jails in Delta and Garfield counties, John is something of a mess hall connoisseur. He knows what hes talking about when he sends his compliments to the chef.
The foods better here, he said.
Each year, the Breckenridge-based lock-up will house as many as 1,500 guests. All told, there are 94 beds to go around. The inmates are grouped in pods, or clusters of cells encircling a common area.
At the center of the pods are picnic tables. Thats where the inmates eat together, three times a day.
There are no bars just lots of remotely locked doors and safety glass under the constant surveillance of corrections officers and more than 40 cameras. There is no privacy and not much ambiance, but, in a culinary sense, those plastic, bolted-down benches are the most exclusive tables in Summit County.
Chef Rick Wojcik trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Hes worked in pizza joints, country clubs and hotels. Hes cooked in some of Breckenridges finest kitchens.
However, the Connecticut natives biggest challenge as a chef has been coming up with dishes that people can eat with a spork.
Without silverware, linguine is a disaster. A pork chop without a knife? A shocking regression to our basest nature.
The last thing you want, Wojcik explained, is an inmate eating with his bare hands, so cook accordingly.
Another rule the chef has learned over his 11 years in the jail kitchen: Dont run out of biscuits on biscuits-and-gravy Wednesday. There will be hell to pay.
As Wojcik explains it, the inmates set their schedule by his meals.
The menu rotates a few times a month, but on one recent week, Wojcik served up fried chicken, pork carnitas and penne pasta with chicken for dinner; BLTs, gyros and grilled ham and cheese for lunch; and pancakes, French toast and donuts for breakfast.
Wojcik doesnt want the menu to get stale, but he also wants to keep crowd favorites like Johns beloved baked ziti in the rotation. Its a delicate balance, he said, especially when inmates arent the only customers.
Inmates, jailers, judges and court clerks they all puts orders in to Chef Wojcik.
Capt. Erik Bourgerie has worked for the Summit County Sheriffs Office for 16 years. Most of his tenure has been spent in the jail, which he now runs with the meticulous nature of a five-star hotelier. So when he was planning a wedding back in 2002, he knew just who to call for catering.
I made that choice because I knew he was an excellent chef, he said. Id been eating his food for a number of years. I knew the quality was going to be good because I experienced that quality every day when I worked.
Jail staff can bring their own lunch, he said, but many of them prefer to eat the same food as the inmates.
The foods awesome, said Sgt. R. Hochmuth. This is a lot better than in the Marines.
Wojcik says there are important differences between a jail kitchen and a restaurant kitchen. In a jail kitchen, you count the knives and lock them up at the end of a shift.
You cant keep some basic culinary staples on hand yeast, for example because inmates might use it to make moonshine.
The economics of a jail kitchen are different, too.
Theres a budget I have to deal with, Wojcik said. Its not just Oh, we can raise our prices.
Labor costs, on the other hand, are cheap. Wojcik relies exclusively on trustees, the name given to inmates who earn special privileges through good behavior.
Wojcik takes them under his wing and teaches them to cook. Simple things, like how to cut an onion properly, can open up a world of possibility for someone who has hit rock bottom. He likes teaching people. More importantly, he likes the inmates reaction to his cooking.
For a lot of people who come here its better than what they eat on the outside, he said. I feel bad for some of these guys. Its tough being here.
Thats why he looks forward to special occasions, like Super Bowl Sunday, when hell smoke chickens and rib racks at his home and bring them in for the inmates. Thats why hell prepare an elaborate Thanksgiving spread of turkey, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce and the whole nine yards.
Sheriff John Minor, whose department operates the jail, sees it as giving inmates a little piece of home.
Both Bourgerie and Minor are proud of the way they treat inmates. As the sheriff is quick to point out, most of these guys havent been convicted of a damn thing. As a result, the inmates are seen almost as guests guests who are innocent until proven guilty. There is, however, an underlying motive to all of this jailhouse hospitality.
We really use food as a management tool, Capt. Bourgerie said. So giving them really good, nutritious meals, weve found, has tended to lower violence in the facility and reduce disciplinary issues.
He said the facility sees about one to two inmate fights a year. He attributes that to the hearty food.
If you keep them full, theyre not going to be as agitated, he said. Theyre going to be more satisfied with their surroundings.