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Chef Bruno Abate unveils his greatest creation yet with Recipe for Change.

Bruno Abate CHICAGO

CHEF ON THE MOVE Recipe for Change founder Bruno Abate takes a break at
his Wicker Park restaurant, Tocco. 

“Everything happened five years ago—there is a good starting point,” says Bruno Abate, the well-known chef behind Wicker Park standout Tocco, in his thick Italian accent. By “everything,” he means the origins of his growing program Recipe for Change (recipeforchangeproject.com), in which he heads to the Cook County Jail three times a week to teach approximately a dozen medium-security inmates to cook like… well, if not quite himself, then a competent amateur. The point of the program? To give the students, through the discipline of learning to cook at a serious level, something lacking in many of their lives: self-esteem.

“My program is not only about food; it’s about heart,” says Abate.

Almost as inspiring as the program itself is the bolt-of-lightning moment that led to its founding. While there isn’t space here to tell the entire story, suffice it to say that Abate woke up at 3am after a flight from Italy, watched a documentary on America’s prison system and immediately wrote a 10-page manifesto on what he could do to help. Shortly thereafter, a number of improbable occurrences took place—the sorts of happenings no one, not even Abate, could believe. And yet they were real. So Recipe for Change was born.

Today, more than 200 students have gone through the program, and Abate knows of just one who has returned to prison. The jail now has a pizza oven, cappuccino and gelato machines, and more, thanks in part to a MacArthur grant. He will soon be featured on 60 Minutes; Steve Harvey has come calling; there’s a cookbook simmering; and a documentary, Serving Time, is filming.

No matter the forum, Abate’s message remains unwavering: “Please write these words for me,” he says. “Punishment is not the key. Rehabilitation and education are the key.” 

ABATE’S HOTS
“I like to pray when I have time,” my 500 Fiat, singing and ironing shirts at home

ABATE’S NOTS
“I think no one should eat burgers or hot dogs.”