Jeff Bruno: Recipe for Change

Every week, Conductor Riccardo Muti’s favorite chef, Bruno Abate of Wicker Park’s legendary Tocco, is serving up Chicago’s most inspired culinary creation: Recipe for Change.

While the surroundings are decidedly institutional and the guests must create the feast, for some, this destination is more coveted than a table at Tocco. The locale? The kitchen of Chicago’s Cook County Jail. Chef Bruno, through his three-month culinary program for inmates, has shown that in combining his talent, patience, and care, with the finest of fresh ingredients and the standards of a rigorous culinary arts school, he can make a real difference in the lives of those who participate. It quickly becomes clear to anyone observing these students at work, that these skills – as well as their enthusiasm and dedication – could be transferred to future opportunities following incarceration. And this is exactly what Bruno has in mind.

When we visited the facilities’ teaching kitchen recently, Chef Bruno had a catered dinner for 150 people later in the day at Tocco, but he wouldn’t have missed his twice-a-week leadership assignment. A 6’5” Neopolitan, Bruno was encouraged to start the program, which depends on private funding, by Justice Anne Burke following his work in a similar program at the juvenile detention center in St. Charles, which has since closed. Bruno, like his recipes, starts each series from scratch.

“I think a lot about restorative justice; about discovering the untapped wealth of the men in my program. In addition to learning recipes that they are anticipating to take home to cook for their families, the detainees are learning a skill they can use when they return to the work force. We keep central the basics: how to set tables, use good manners, and the importance of cleanliness and good nutrition. ‘Recipe for Change’ is a program that gives purpose to the time served. Food is a key to make people feel happy.”

An evening at Tocco’s is a favorite night out for friends of chef and restaurant regulars Keven and Nick Wilder, who count the restaurant’s porchetta, burrata cheese, grilled radicchio, and perfectly prepared fish among their most loved dishes. Keven’s admiration for Chef Bruno extends to his other kitchen as well.

“Bruno is a dashing and charming Milanese chef who befriends both Hollywood celebrities and prisoners at Cook County Jail. He is passionately committed to his Recipe for Change program, which is having a life-changing impact on his culinary students at the prison.”

Chef Bruno has been known to help graduates who need shoes and other essentials.

Students hard at work.

When we visited recently, twenty students were hard at work on eggplant parmigiana, with fresh basil harvested in the jail’s herb and vegetable garden, a dish Bruno had learned from his mother. Dressed in spotless white aprons and chefs hats, the students prepared veloute sauce for lasagna di zucchini, finalized a ricotta cake, and rolled dough for a delicious thin crust pizza, topped with fresh ingredients.

“Cook County is the only jail with an authentic pizza oven. And our pizzas are definitely not deep dish – they’re the real thing. We use the same ingredients we use at Tocco: olive oil from Tuscany, fine balsamic vinegar, fresh herbs and vegetables, sea salt, and flour from Italy. Students are expected to learn complicated recipes and prep work, and then enjoy the pleasure of newly found tastes as they eat together at tables they have set with good utensils and attractive plates. They also learn that each recipe has a story, and it is fun for me to share it.”


A student prepares one of the program’s famed pizzas.

Sheriff Janet de la Torre, who also works with the program, feels that the classes evoke that all-important “something to look forward to” feeling in the inmates – and agrees they share much more than just recipes.

“Chef Bruno also teaches life skills, such as how to manage your time, and gradually the students find ways to reach for their untapped potential.”

Fundraising is key to Recipe for Change. The pizza oven, other equipment, and ingredients have been purchased through donations. Bruno would like to create a more permanent school environment with more and better equipment, an increase in workstations, the hiring of teaching assistants, and expansion of space. Expansion could lead to the teaching kitchen becoming a food source for the entire population of 1500 inmates in Division XI at Cook County Jail. It could also lead to the ability to offer valid certification upon graduation that would better guarantee jobs.

As they waited for the fragrant dishes they had just prepared to come out of their ovens, the students talked of what they liked about the program. Cortez said he felt the cooking classes made him feel that he was “seeing an open window to the future,” while Josh noted that “it is great to have something to look forward to, and to know that someone has faith in us.” Another participant, Alfredo, joked that he couldn’t wait to make Greek turkey burgers – not on Bruno’s recipe list – when he got out, but noted that he really hadn’t known before about what foods were healthy.

Before sitting down to lunch with his students spread across the room’s eight tables, Chef Bruno summed up what it was all about:

“Instead of just staring at walls while they are housed in jail and returning to society with the same frustrations they entered with, we hope we are motivating our students to create a future they can anticipate.”