The dining room at Fife has the sterile feel of an upscale hospital cafeteria with a dark side, as if Nurse Ratched would take her lunch break here. Uniformed correctional officers chat with white-clad and tattooed servers, while diners, many senior citizens on fixed incomes, scour the menu. A sign on the dining-room wall reads: “Never trust a skinny cook.” Instead, diners are expected to put their trust in some beefy prisoners, as though risking life and limb with each request for a starter salad. Regular customers seem to get over that; a frail-looking elderly woman doesn’t hesitate to remind her server — who, for all she knows, could be finishing up a murder sentence — that she’s still waiting for a glass of water.
To order, patrons write down what they want on little pieces of paper, and this being Friday, everyone’s ordering fish — creamy, peppery clam chowder, followed by cod baked in savory garlic breadcrumbs. Clearly, this is not your typical prison gruel (dessert is molten chocolate cake). No one even bothers probing their dishes for ground glass.
Regular customer John Gates, 66, has been coming to the Fife nearly every day it’s been open for the past 15 years.
“I was a little leery walking in the first day,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect, or even if I was allowed to be here. But 15 years later, I know that I am, and that the food is good, and that the inmates are nice. I even bring my grandson sometimes.”
Given that the Fife caters to both members of the AARP and the local preschool, it can be a difficult place for inmates to get used to.
“It’s kind of uncomfortable dealing with civilians after being in for a while,” says Scott King, one of the kitchen’s three cooks. “But it’s definitely good to try. At first, being around people on the outside made me really nervous, but I know that I’m going to have to deal with them eventually.”
“I get [the inmates] ready for the real world,” says program director Eddie Jacobs, a 1983 Culinary Institute of America graduate who acts as the Fife’s head chef.
“This is not make-believe land. This is prison. You burn a $35 steak when you’re working for someone [in the real world], they’re not going to say, ‘Nice job.’ Since they’re serving [the public] here, they are held to that same standard.”
For Ruane, the restaurant is the jewel of the prison. Listening to the superintendent talk about the program is like listening to the warden from Cool Hand Luke on happy pills.
“The program is really about breaking down the whole tough-guy criminal image,” he says. “But this happens when they wait on people, and the inmates start forming bonds with the patrons. There was one older guy who used to come in on a regular basis, and an inmate used to refer to him as his prison-grandfather. He would look out for him, and when he didn’t come in, he would actually worry about him. He liked this old guy so much that on his birthday he made a little cake for him.”
I was incredulous that anyone would really go through the hard-boiled-criminal-to-baker metamorphosis. But then I met Idris Forde, a man now less interested in crime and more in kitchen appliances.