'Coldwater Kitchen' serves up life lessons from prison culinary training program

The town of Coldwater is a typical small town, with a bowling alley, a drive-in movie theater, and a neighborhood pub. But this small town also has one thing that largely sets it apart: the Lakeland Correctional Facility. 

Past the barbed wire fence and gray walls, a fruitful, highly regarded culinary program grows. The food service and culinary arts program trains inmates on catering, fine dining, plate presentation, food prep, kitchen safety and sanitation. 

Chef Jimmy HillChef Jimmy Hill is an executive chef instructor and has been working at the prison for more than 30 years. His humble demeanor and caring heart have impacted countless people, providing them with kitchen skills and a new sense of hope. The program is the subject of a Detroit Free Press documentary, "Coldwater Kitchen," which celebrates its Michigan premiere at the Freep Film Festival on Wednesday, April 26. 

Directed by Brian Kaufman and Mark Kurlyandchik, the film focuses on four characters: Chef Hill and three inmates. When Kurlyandchik was a new restaurant critic for Detroit Free Press, he received a letter from the correctional facility. The letter was from an inmate, Ernest Davis, who was serving a life without parole sentence, at the time. Davis was also a participant in the culinary training program. Although receiving letters from prison isn’t out of the ordinary for journalists, Kurlyandchik says this one led him on an unforgettable journey. 

Local metro Detroit chefs familiar with Chef Hill and his program urged Kurlyandchik to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Detroit to Coldwater. After being invited to an annual culinary skills symposium at the prison, Kurlyandchik arrived to see and taste the fruit of this program firsthand. 

“That’s when I saw exactly what these guys were capable of, and what an amazing place this was,” Kurlyandchik says. “Somewhere where you’re not expecting this type of greatness because of what we’re told and our preconceived notions are of who is in prison.”

This launched a five-year journey of filmmaking, storytelling and life changes. Not every day was easy though, especially just getting clearance to even step foot into the building. “I couldn’t bring a pen in, certainly couldn’t bring a reporter’s notebook with a spiral on it,” Kurlyandchik recalls of his first visit. “I didn’t have anything other than a still DSLR camera.”

Co-Director Mark KurlyandchikThat frustration quickly melted away once he arrived at the symposium, where he was welcomed with hospitality equal to a great restaurant. “I was greeted with hospitality, smiles, and amazing food," he says. "I knew immediately that there was a deeper story there.”

After his story assignment on the Lakeland Correctional Facility was published in May 2018, attention from Hollywood production companies arose with an interest in making a movie. Kurlyandchik and Kaufman decided that they wanted to be the ones to tell this story. A story many people are utterly unaware of, even residents or those driving through the small town of Coldwater. 

“That’s part of the reason why I thought the justification of making this into a film is that it is a type of place that you drive by,” Kurlyandchik says. “If you’ve never been in a prison, you have certain stereotypes about what goes on beyond that wire fence. What Chef Jimmy Hill has done with this program, and what he does for his guys every day is very different than those traditional stereotypes, images of the people behind bars and what they do.

"Just being able to shine a little bit of light on this small pocket of hope, in a place that is surrounded with the absence of it – that is certainly the most fulfilling thing that we can do as storytellers. It’s a story of hope, faith, and love, coming from a place where people may not expect it.”

Kurlyandchik says the film’s setting of Coldwater also sets the stage for the bigger conversation about the broken prison system in this country. 

“The interesting thing about Coldwater is that it is emblematic of the type of communities that we put prisons in across this country,” he says. “It is very rural, overwhelmingly white, leans very Republican in its voting patterns, and yet, gets to count the incarcerated population of Coldwater, which is majority black and people of color in its census data. Then they get apportioned state representation based on that population. This is part of the broken system that we have in this country that stacks the decks unfairly.”

While the prison system touches one out of three Americans, for most, this impact is not singular, but rather, every day for the rest of their lives. Regardless of sentence length, a moment in time ends up defining them indefinitely.

Culinary program participant Chef Dink Dawson hopes the movie inspires people to reconsider judging others. 

“Everybody makes mistakes,” he says. “If I was judged once when I went to prison, when I come home, I shouldn’t be judged again by the small box that says ‘have you ever been convicted of a felon?’ I have to check this box.”

Inside Lakeland Correctional Facility, a culinary training institute gives inmates skills for inside and outside of the kitchen.Once released, Chef Dink applied for jobs and had employers judge him based on that checked box, rather than his qualified or sometimes overqualified culinary skills. Although upsetting, this hasn’t kept him out of the kitchen for too long. Along with his family members, Chef Dink owns and operates a food truck as part of his business venture, The Green Mile Grille in Detroit. 

Every day in his business, he uses kitchen skills like fusion cooking and flavor combinations, plate presentation, and food costs -- taught by Chef Hill. The skills taught for life outside of the kitchen remain especially relevant. 

“He had and still has a huge impact on my life because he taught me something I can use for the rest of my life,” Chef Dink says of Chef Hill, who was much more than an instructor, but also a positive figure in a negative situation. “He’s a very patient guy,” he says. “He instilled that type of patience and understanding, and that can go a long way.”

Lakeland Correctional Facility culinary institute participants learn the ins and outs of fine dining, everything from sourcing fresh ingredients to plating. The two still talk and work together, recently as judges in a cooking competition in Port Huron. For some though, this communication and closeness are simply not allowed, due to policies within the prison system. Policies often prohibit employees like Hill from communicating or having personal relationships with those in prison or on parole. This is a theme Kurlyandchik hopes the movie can help spark conversation around the stigmas, advocate for policy change, and provide hope. 

“I think the theme about overfamiliarity really sticks with everyone. I’m happy that that is resonating,” he says. “It is one of the policies that I think is designed for a reason, and written very broadly. I think there may be a chance for some kind of adjustment to that broadly written policy that can allow somebody like Chef Jimmy Hill to be able to track the students that come through his program so that they can ask him for help when they’re at their most vulnerable.

"If this film even brings that idea of overfamiliarity to the forefront, and sparks some kind of policy debate around that rule, I think that can make a positive change, and that would be incredible.”

Throughout the entire process, Kurlyandchik has also been positively impacted by Chef Hill’s character and ability to ‘walk the talk.’

The documentary's co-director Brian Kaufman.“Chef Jimmy Hill and his ability to continue to push is inspiring,” he says. “He doesn’t look at the files of any of the guys who come into his program. As somebody who comes from a journalism background, that’s crazy to me. The first thing I want to do is look up some of these files. Understanding him and the way he operates, now makes me look at that in a different way. Knowing Jimmy has allowed me to see even more of the humanity in other people, and really understand the power of a second chance – as cheesy as that may sound.”

Even looking back at the early production days, Kurlyandchik admits he would do things differently now. In the interview stage, participants were sat down and asked basic questions like their names, what they were in for, for how long, and what they like to cook. 

“Reflecting on it now, I shouldn’t have asked what they’re in for,” Kurlyandchik says. “That’s the thing about prison – it’s that constant reminder of a person’s worst moment of their life. The way that we have talked about that in this country and our society, has always been to criminalize in a negative way, and it’s stigmatizing for life. It doesn’t help anything to talk about this issue that way. I hope this film contributes to a change in the tone of the conversation.”

"Coldwater Kitchen" celebrates its Michigan premiere on opening night of the Freep Film Festival at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 26 at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the Detroit Institute of Arts). A special ticketed event in partnership with Frame restaurant in Hazel Park will feature a dinner & movie event from April 28-30. Chef Jimmy Hill and former students Dink Dawson and Ernest Davis will be in attendance, and preparing a meal. 

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.