In prison, eating well is not a priority. Especially, since it is necessary to feed prisoners three times per day, all year, in some cases for almost the entire lifetime of an inmate. So many inmates disdain the prison cafeteria that it has led to a huge problem of waste. Last year, the former Michelin-starred chef, Michel Portos, spent a week in Baumettes prison in Marseille. He witnessed the food practices of inmates and the ingenious treasures they deployed concerning food.
What was the objective of your mission at the Baumettes penitentiary center?
The idea was to cook a complete meal for 1,800 inmates, and to give them cooking lessons for one week. This is due to the fact that many of them cook in their cells with purchases from the commissary (US, canteen for UK) (Editor’s Note: the “cantinage” in french prison slang, is the practice of buying products to improve basic standards, such as cigarettes, but also food, in the prison store). At the end, I proposed 18 recipes, feasible with the little material available to prisoners. Their accomplishments were filmed and these images were projected on the internal television at Baumettes.
What have you taken away from this uncommon experience for a chef?
It was obviously very emotional, as the inmates were full of anticipation for this meeting. Personally, I didn’t know why they were there. But, as is necessary anytime when cooking, there were simple and direct exchanges. Many different nationalities are present at Baumettes, and each participated in workshops related to its culture, food habits… Therefore, we exchanged many things–recipes, ideas, tips.
What do they have as material for cooking in a cell?
A 20cm in diameter electric plate that heats to no more than 250 watts. A pan, a pot, a small square-tipped knife, for avoiding incidents… In other words, it’s complicated. And well, even with that, they make incredible things: pizzas, tajines, makrouds! A Brazilian even makes pastries, brioche, with the help of an oven he put together from tin cans… The inmates astounded me, they are the real MacGyvers of the kitchen.
Food, is it important for them?
Some spend four hours a day cooking! That counts for already half-a-day where you don’t think about other things… Food is extremely important, especially when someone is locked up. And many of the inmates only eat that which they cook. It can be said that the food proposed in prison is not well thought of. It is at such a point that the Minister of Agriculture has put a program on his agenda dedicated to the improvement of “food offerings” for the prison population.
You’ve tasted it, how is it?
It needs to be said; it’s pathetic. Incidentally, it seemed that 60 to 70% of the food trays went into the trash! It is also a way to rebel against the administration; but it is true that it isn’t good. But it isn’t inedible either. Further, it is like at the hospital, when you only have that to think about, it becomes unbearable. But the objective of the prison administration is to feed the inmates, period. Nutrition is the same. It is not on the top of the problem list. Ninety-five percent of products come from a box or are frozen, low quality products.
Your visit says something about the administration of Marseille’s will to improve things. Do you think it is possible?
It is clearly a polemic issue. When people from the outside learned that I went to cook in prison, many did not understand. After all, they are inmates. We are not going make them gourmet food… And I can understand this reaction. But they are humans despite everything. And between a cup of rubbish and something fancy, there is maybe a balance to be found.
You also tried your hand at the exercise, what did you prepare?
Our aim was not to put caviar on the menu once a year, but to show how through small steps the standard can be improved. But it requires an incredible effort. Personally, I only used fresh ingredients. Greek-style vegetables, spiced poultry thigh with mashed sweet potatoes, and an egg flan with pears and a salted butter caramel. All for almost the same price as a food tray. But it took me two days. That is the big difference. The chef at Baumettes, with inmates who work in the kitchen, must put out three meals daily. Therefore, he is not going to make miracles.
You have also come from doing a mission for APHM (Public Assistance – Hospitals of Marseille). Like inmates, the users of hospitals are targeted for the next national plan regarding food. Are there similarities between the two worlds?
Yes, clearly. In both cases, the number of meals served is enormous, with extreme budgetary constraints, making it difficult to produce quality. But the hospital is particular because it is extremely complicated to manage the diets, medical recommendations, post-operative states, diabetes, intolerances to this and that… By the way, it is a robot providing punch cards and an articulated arm that dresses the food trays in terms of the dietary needs of each person. It is truly surreal to see working.
Do patients complain about what their eating?
Yes, of course, but I take a step back when accepting this information, because the context is not preferable. It is necessary to deliver 11,000 meals per day; it is not a restaurant for 40 people…. At least there is less “pre-packaging” than in prison. The idea of my visit was not to make a revolution but to try to rectify certain dishes. For a curry lamb sauté, to reinforce the spices, thicken a soup, improve the quality of the salad in order for people to eat better.
One of the problems with huge central kitchens, it that the staff is often less motivated due to the distance from the public. It is
not very gratifying for a cook…
They are motivated, but the real problem is the training. If you are not trained in classical cooking, you are not going to have the real movements of a cook. The training in a collective kitchen, that I know of, is the CAP, which I did when I was young. It is not the ideal. And there is the budget: 3 euros for a tray with an appetizer, entree, cheese, dessert, and bread. It is appalling! I’m not sure that even a Marc Veyrat or a Troisgros could do better! And also, honestly, this week I ate in a restaurant along the Vieux Port in Marseille, and it was foul… Green beans from a can, poultry with a black stuffing, it was a real disaster. As bad as what I ate in prison or at the hospital. But you are in the open air, with friends, and not nailed to a bed or confined to 10 square meters, so it’s easier to handle.