Tzalmon prison: From crooks to cooks

At Tzalmon prison, a culinary course helps prisoners learn a trade to prepare them for life on the outside.

Cooking course at Tzalmon prison (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
Cooking course at Tzalmon prison
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
At first glance, it seems pretty much like a normal culinary school – students shuffle around an industrial-sized kitchen banging pots and pans and putting the finishing touches on the dishes they’ve plated for review as their mentor shouts out advice. Then the differences become apparent: The students are all men wearing orange penitentiary uniforms under their chef’s clothes, there’s a prison guard at the back of the kitchen supervising, and under no circumstances are any students allowed to take their knives home from class.
The kitchen at Tzalmon Prison, east of Karmiel in the Galilee, is part of the institution’s “Art of Cooking” workshop, which sends convicts of all types through an 11-month culinary course. At the end of their studies, a five times-a-week course from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., they are given a test approved by the Economy Ministry and if they pass, they graduate with a culinary school degree, which it is hoped will help them keep out of trouble with the law.
“We’re giving them tools so they can return to society. Most people won’t want to hire them, but in cooking they can get jobs. There they can be accepted,” Insp. Adi Tavior says on Wednesday, standing next to an inmate plating a piping hot serving of chicken breast stuffed with a duxelles paste.
The female warden says that in the cooking course, like in the prison’s hair styling, gardening and metal-working courses, the inmates can learn skills they can find employment with after release, in fields where their past won’t be such a hindrance.
“They learn trades that they can work in on the outside, they don’t train for hi-tech or for a government job, because those places won’t hire them because of their past.”
The first class of 13 graduated from the course in 2012, and so far a total of 45 have finished, according to Tavior, who says she does not know of a single one who has ended up back in prison after graduating.
The cooking course is open to any prisoner regardless of whether they are serving time for a violent offense or not. The only stipulations are that they have shown good behavior and have enough time left to finish the course, Tavior says.
In other words, every prisoner is eligible to spend seven hours a day with access to knives and a wide variety of potentially deadly kitchen tools, even if they’re serving time for stabbing someone.
Tavior points out the numbered tool boxes that correlate to each of the students, and how each tool box is locked up and each knife and all other utensils is numbered to correspond to the box. Perhaps more important, she points to the back of the room, where a large, square-chested prison guard named Nabil stands watch over the students.
Judging by his expression and the way he carries himself, Nabil doesn’t seem to have a good sense of humor.
Tavior says they’ve never had anything go missing, and that she believes the inmates simply know they have too much to lose if they get kicked off the course for a behavior violation.
One of those inmates looking to finish the course this month is Gabi Kahlon, a 42-year-old Netanya native doing a 28-month bid on a “drug related charge” he doesn’t elaborate on.
Kahlon says if he wasn’t in the course he’d just sit in his cell all day watching the days drag on, getting nothing out of his time behind bars. It was a similar refrain from the other students, who seemed to have adopted the jail house philosophy of letting the time serve you, instead of just serving time.
“On the outside I wasn’t doing anything; here at least in the course I can say I did something,” Kahlon says, adding that the course should help him and others stay off the street.
A handy-man by trade, he says the course will help him find a job in a restaurant or a hotel somewhere in the country, and that the prison should be able to arrange job placement after his release.
As with other penitentiary work programs, it’d be a lie to say it’s all about a desire to succeed on the outside or to better oneself; the program has its perks.
“We also eat much better than the other guys on the cell block,” Kahlon says with a smile. “You never see stuff like this out on the cell block, nothing, so there’s that, too.”
Like the others, he had to learn a collection of French culinary terms, though he says as a native of Netanya, the country’s most Francophone city, he knew a little bit of the language already. He also says he’s related by marriage to the city’s famous Abutbul crime family, but it’s unlikely he’ll go look for a job at the family’s famous Farmer’s Daughter restaurant in the city, seeing as it was torched by their underworld rivals back in 2010.
In addition to the kitchen floor there’s a classroom where they are taught about the culinary trade. Along with the cooking books, there are posters on the wall showing the various fruits and vegetables they’ll be working with, as well as a glossary of French terms written phonetically in Hebrew with an explanation of each in Hebrew.
For the sake of kashrut, all the food they make is either parve or just meat – and there is little if any instruction on desserts.
On Wednesday, the students were separated into two classes, one preparing a chicken dish and one focusing on a beef dish.
The chicken group’s menu started with an appetizer of antipasti with balsamic vinegar followed by a green lentil soup.
For the main course they had chicken breast stuffed with a duxelles paste filling and lightly fried to a golden crust. The beef group prepared a roasted eggplant with tahini appetizer, followed by a red lentil soup and steak with a brown mushroom sauce, rice pilaf, and dill salad.
Testing the dishes proved a personal motto: When presented with chicken or beef, always chose beef. The dish was very tasty and there’s no reason to think it couldn’t be in a restaurant somewhere in Tel Aviv, though probably not at one of the fanciest ones. While testing the dish one of the inmates approached, looking for feedback.
“Nu, so could this be served at a restaurant? You’ve probably been to more restaurants than I have, I can probably count on one hand how many times I’ve been to a nice restaurant,” the man says.
To be honest, it was tasty, but it wasn’t fine dining by any stretch. What it brought to mind was a good main course at a hotel buffet line in Eilat or Tiberias, far better than what you’d find at a kibbutz cafeteria, but not the type of fare you’d find at a gourmet Tel Aviv restaurant. Still, these are mostly men with no background in cooking, and the trade is one best learned on the job.
The man teaching the students is Guille Segal, a native Argentinean who spent his career as a caterer and chef and is a graduate of “Dan Gourmet” the Israel Center for Culinary Studies and Hotel Management.
He’s a kibbutznik and a nice Jewish boy who never knew anyone in the criminal life or associated with the type of men he teaches today, and he had to learn a lot of pretty foreign- sounding slang while on the job at Tzalmon. Segal says he found out about the job from his daughter, who did her national service working with at-risk kids and heard about the culinary program. He says he was a bit nervous, but his daughter told him to go for it and he gave it a shot.
Segal says the inmates are good students; they don’t take for granted that they’ve been given an opportunity, and they’re better behaved than people may assume.
Also, they’ve got something to lose.
“They think it’s a course with perks, because they get to eat better than the other prisoners,” he says, before offering up one of the almond and powdered sugar cookies he baked with the class earlier.
Inmate Zuheir Yusef is a 31-year-old Tiberias native serving a prison term for robbery.
Unlike others he says that the course doesn’t make being behind bars easier, but gives him something to look forward to on the outside.
“This course gives you tools and this is my second term in prison and I hope that really, I can take something from here and leave with a diploma that will help me when I’m on the outside,” he says.