May 27, 2009 / 8:40 AM / 10 years ago

Inmates cook up a feast in Singapore rehab project

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - Salmon tartare, chicken roulade and creme brulee are by no means standard prison fare, but these were dishes whipped up by some inmates in Singapore as part of a project aimed at easing them back into society.

An inmate, wearing a barcoded identification bracelet, prepares a dish during a cooking competition at a kitchen inside Changi Prison in Singapore May 26, 2009. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash

About 10,000 ex-offenders are released annually from prisons and drug rehabilitation centers in largely conservative Singapore. Many find it difficult to find a job and face social pressures that hinder their attempts to re-integrate.

This week, teams involving 12 finalists from several jails traded their prison garb for chefs’ jackets and pitted their culinary skills against one another, creating a three-course menu with a spring theme during a cookout.

The contest, at the main Changi Prison, followed three weeks of culinary training for about 40 inmates by a local hospitality school, which joined forces with the Yellow Ribbon rehabilitation project two years ago.

“It is not just to showcase the inmates’ skills and talents — it’s a platform for them to get some employable vocational skills,” said Singapore Prison Service’s Deputy Superintendent Ng Gee Tiong. Most of the male and female inmates who took part in the contest are jailed on theft and drug offences.

Both judges and contestants said one of the greatest challenges was the limited number of ingredients. But these constraints gave the prisoners the opportunity to think out of the box and on their feet, something chefs often have to do.

“There is a lot of talent inside here,” observed Chef Catan Tan, a teacher at hospitality school Shatec who mentored the groups.

Ingenious adaptations included a heart-shaped mold constructed from aluminum foil and icing sugar made from sugar ground in a mixing bowl.

For security reasons, the inmates also had to work under strict guidelines. This meant that most utensils, like choppers and knives, and even vegetable peelers, were chained to the kitchen bench.

“The ingredients were really quite basic. It was quite tough because when you cook, you really need a lot of elements and if you miss one, the taste can be different from what you intended,” said a former chef who declined to be named and who is in jail for criminal breach of trust.

As a reward, the winners, judged on criteria ranging from teamwork to presentation and taste, were given a cash prize as well as the opportunity to cook for, and join, their families for the meal — a treat the organizers hope will foster closer family ties.

There are more than 9.8 million people imprisoned globally, according to the International Center for Prison Studies, and prison populations are growing in many countries, raising concerns about overcrowding, crime and the cost to governments.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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