To hear Abate explain how the program came to be is to settle in for a long and rather winding story, involving a nighttime vision, several chance run-ins with Chicago’s top lawmakers, and a few interrupted pilot programs. Abate doesn’t have a legal or nonprofit background, but he believes strongly in the power of redemption: “Everyone deserves a second chance, third chance, fourth chance. Life is a chance. Why don’t these guys have a chance to do something good with their life?”
For Abate, food is a vehicle for larger life lessons. The program itself covers basics like food safety and sanitation, along with skills and technique, and recipes for a variety of Italian dishes that are a serious improvement over the jail’s cafeteria offerings. Inmates must apply into the strictly monitored program, and once they’re there, they might stay anywhere from two months or two years, depending on their release status and behavior.
“We’re here to help, but our mission is to change you,” says Abate. “Change in mindset, change in skill sets, and ultimately a change in the lifestyle that brought these guys into the Cook County correctional system.” By encouraging this metamorphosis, believing in the potential of his students and serving as their mentor, Abate hopes to reduce the chance that they’ll wind up returning to jail. He’s hired recent releases to work on staff at Tocco, and helps others find jobs at nearby restaurants (to date, Recipe for Change has seen about 200 graduates). His next dream is to create what he calls a “Decompression Center,” a sort of post-release, pre-independent living complex where ex-convicts can live and work in an on-site cafe for a few months following their release.