CookWell, a culinary-training program for ex-offenders overseen by the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville (PCOL), celebrated the graduation of its latest group of trainees last month with a feast at the church’s fellowship center.
The three trainees prepared dinner, alongside executive chef Frank Benowitz, an instructor from Mercer County Community College. Guests included the CookWell board, friends and family, as well as program partners from Arm-in-Arm and the NJ Association on Corrections. They were treated to a menu that put the graduates’ newly acquired skills on full display: crab-stuffed shrimp, braised chicken, truffle-garlic mashed potatoes, and NJ asparagus with shiitake mushrooms.
This graduation marks the second for CookWell, whose pilot program was launched in the fall of 2018 as part of the Lawrenceville Job-Training Partnership (LJTP). CookWell serves returning citizens from the Trenton area and beyond, offering them an intensive 14-week course during which they receive not only culinary but also life-skills training and apprentice at local restaurants. Partner restaurants from the Lawrenceville/Princeton area include Acacia, the Gingered Peach, the Gretalia Hospitality Group, Chambers Walk and Leonardo’s. Two of CookWell’s latest graduates have been offered jobs at partner restaurants, while two others are well positioned to find work in the food-service sector, which is currently experiencing a shortage of workers.
Research shows a clear link between stable work and preventing recidivism. CookWell is committed to the idea that people transitioning from incarceration benefit not just from jobs, but also from community support and personal attention. In helping trainees to lead fruitful lives as full tax-paying citizens, CookWell has many partners. The NJ Association on Corrections and the US Attorney’s ReNew Court assist CookWell in selecting applicants. Arm-in-Arm, the Trenton-based social services agency, provides life-skills training in coordination with volunteers from PCOL and elsewhere, while the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen handles ServeSafe training. Finally, PCOL and the First Presbyterian Church of Trenton offer space for culinary instruction and graduation celebrations.
The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville founded LJTP in 2018 as a separate 501c3 organization. CookWell is its first operating program.
Testimonials from CookWell graduates:
“Thank you so much. I appreciate everything the CookWell and Arm-in-Arm team did for me and the guys…. I look forward to helping the program move forward so more people can get the experience that me and the guys got. If there is anything I can do please let me know.”
“I’m so happy you guys came into my life. It’s been so much better. I’ve opened my eyes and now I know for sure I can make it out here. Next is the GED test so I can go to college.”