Santa Paula Rotarians told of unique Todd Road Jail culinary program

April 21, 2017
Santa Paula News

Santa Paula Rotarians learned at a recent meeting that inmates at Ventura County’s Todd Road Jail are getting a chance for a successful life after incarceration in a unique program that pairs food with vocational training.

Chef Amy Tyrrell, a banking executive who after retirement turned to food — for a new business venture, not comfort — is conducting the program at the facility, located just west of the city.

Now a graduate of the acclaimed Oxnard College culinary school and the owner of Morsels As You Wish, Tyrrell is also certified in organic cooking and has a healthy interest in nutrition. She has also attended the Culinary Institute of America, Let’s Get Cookin’ located in Westlake Village and a variety of local cooking classes led by executive chefs and restaurateurs.

She not only caters a variety of events but also teaches.

Tyrrell noted, “I’m very concerned about children,” and the rising rate of diabetes and obesity in youngsters. 

Affiliated with the Ventura Adult Continuing Education (VACE) program, Tyrrell became the director of the culinary program at Todd Road Jail in 2015.  

When Tyrrell decided to take on the culinary program, her own sous chef, Henry, told her “ ‘You forgot you hired me right after I got out of Todd Road Jail.’ ”

She told several success stories of those earning both food handling and food preparation certificates in spite of personal and incarceration imposed challenges that, at other jails, only allow lecture courses.

To be eligible for classes that involve sharp utensils, inmates have to be considered low-risk and have the emotional wherewithal to handle the rigors of a class where their work could be criticized.

Tyrrell noted she has to take precautions with knives and Cuisinarts but the Todd Road Jail program is a welcome hand up to inmates: she developed curriculums for food handler and kitchen management certifications, “Then it’s up to the student how far they go,” from prepping food to becoming the line cook that uses it.

Other chefs have helped by mentoring program participants. 

From “Bear,” a 6’7”, 420 pound inmate, who was in fire camp and displayed “an innate ability to help people,” to “Buzzard,” an aging “gangbanger” whose family had been in the methamphetamine trade for generations Tyrrell told stories of inmates she has worked with.

Incarcerated at 17 different institutions, covered with tattoos, Buzzard offered Tyrrell her most poignant moment: “It was one on one…students in the culinary program have 20 hours of homework a week and he said he was having trouble keeping up. He said he never told anyone, but he was stupid.”

Tyrrell discovered Buzzard could not read: “He had a learning disability,” that limited his choices and tied him to the family business he told her he would like to step away from.

Tyrrell has worked with more than 30 prisoners in the program that offers a graduation ceremony catered by the students.

And, she noted, “They’re building me our own kitchen,” so the program cannot only continue but expand

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