The best recipe for serving satisfying meals to TDCJ employees and offenders statewide is to follow preparation specifications to the letter: No adding a pinch of this or a dash of that. That’s the idea behind a new move to standardize food recipes throughout the agency’s correctional institutions.
“The object of this whole exercise is to be able to eat high quality spaghetti and meatballs at the Dalhart Unit and travel down to the Lopez and Segovia units and eat spaghetti and meatballs of the same high quality,” said Tony D’Cunha, assistant director for Laundry, Food & Supply. “What we’re trying to do is raise the bar statewide, putting the emphasis on quality and customer service.”
While correctional practices have long been standardized, TDCJ kitchen captains have not had a uniform set of recipes to work from in the past, D’Cunha said.
“I don’t think we have ever had a standard set of recipes systemwide,” he said. “Everyone did their own thing. And when the system was small, it was probably easier to monitor. But when we had the expansion (in the 1990s), for the most part, kitchen captains were on their own.”
D’Cunha, who took over Laundry, Food & Supply last June, found that dishes supposedly made from identical ingredients tasted differently from unit to unit.
“One of the first things that struck me in eating at the units was that the food was either very good, okay, or not very good,” he said. “It became evident that there were well over 90 kitchens cooking food 90 different ways. It was all over the scale.”
|UTMB dietician K. Reddy, right, and Laundry, Food & Supply administrative employee Benny Oliphant sample dishes prepared from new standard recipes at the Byrd Unit in Huntsville.
Photo by David Nunnelee
To come up with a standard set of easy-to-follow recipes for TDCJ cooks, D’Cunha enlisted the help of the Texas National Guard, which sent him a long list of standardized recipes used by the U.S. Army for the preparation of entrees. He then formed a working group of kitchen captains from throughout the state to narrow the list by selecting only those that could be prepared with the raw materials already warehoused by the agency. The dishes prepared from the recipes were then sampled at different facilities by a diverse group of diners that included non-uniformed administrators, unit wardens, correctional officers and offenders.
“The feedback we got was real positive,” D’Cunha said. “I can honestly say that some of the recipes we tasted were probably the best I’ve eaten in the penitentiary and are comparable to a restaurant on the outside. What we found out through this process was that the Army feeds its employees really well.”
D’Cunha said what makes the Army recipes so appetizing is their simplicity.
“What became apparent fairly quickly was the simplicity of these Army recipes,” he said. “All of the recipes are based on feeding 100 portions, so if you have 2,500 people, all you do is multiply whatever is on that recipe by 25. So what this is doing is taking a lot of the guesswork out. It isn’t just a matter of throwing in more salt. These recipes are really precise.”
But in some cases, the Army recipes had to be altered to appeal to the taste of Texans.
“A good example is the Army taco,” D’Cunha explained. “It was something that just wouldn’t fly in Texas, so we had to Tex-Mex it up a bit.”
And the taste of Texas, including the flavor of vegetables grown in unit gardens, could well find its way into other correctional food courses.
“We’ve encouraged all our kitchen captains to share their recipes with us,” D’Cunha said. “And if we have a better way of doing it than the Army does, we’ll certainly look at that. It’s not exclusively Army. It’s just whatever works best.”
Entrees made from some 30 standardized recipes, including tuna casserole, chicken al a king, and Mexican-style pork chops, started showing up in TDCJ dining halls in February. Side dishes and desserts also made from standardized recipes are expected to follow.
Meanwhile, to train offenders and kitchen personnel in preparing meals from the standardized recipes, the agency is launching a pilot Culinary Arts Training Program at the Eastham Unit in Lovelady for male offenders and the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville for female offenders. The first-of-its-kind program offered through Lee College and the Windham School District is expected to span three to six months.
“I want to bring in offenders who are already working in our kitchens statewide for these classes,” D’Cunha said. “I also want to send our current kitchen personnel and our new Food Service employees.”
D’Cunha said he sees the standardized recipes and training program as a win-win situation for TDCJ. Offenders get trained in a job skill and get to consume quality food, a key ingredient in the building and maintaining of good morale and institutional behavior. And it comes at no additional cost to the agency.
“We don’t look at any additional cost because we’ve got all the raw materials. All this program is designed to do is train our personnel, he said.”
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