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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 15, 2024
Chef Bruno Abate presents a painting of Mary and the Christ Child to Pope Francis at an audience Feb. 9. (Photo credit: Vatican Media, courtesy of Bruno Abate)

Pope Francis gave a warm welcome last Friday morning, Feb. 9, to Chicago-based chef Bruno Abate, who has taught the art of cooking to some 4,000 inmates in Cook County Jail over the past 14 years. The pope encouraged him to continue “giving hope to prisoners” through his “Recipe for Change” program.

The tall, bespectacled, Italian-born chef was accompanied to the papal audience by Chicago’s archbishop, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who first got to know Mr. Abate during his Christmas and Easter visits to Cook County Jail to celebrate Mass and have lunch with the “Recipe for Change” participants. The two became friends. The cardinal wrote to the Holy Father about the chef’s work with prisoners, knowing that Francis has always taken a great interest in the welfare of the incarcerated. The Holy Father responded that he would like to meet the chef, and the cardinal gave Mr. Abate the good news a week ago when the chef was in Mexico on holiday. “I couldn’t believe it at first,” he said, “but I know cardinals don’t tell lies, so I came to Rome.”

Speaking to America at his hotel in Rome two hours after his audience with the pope, Mr. Abate recounted his meeting with a sense of wonder:

 

It was a fantastic experience that started by going through the ornate Vatican rooms decorated with great art to meet Pope Francis. And when I saw him, it was just like seeing a light. It was an immense joy, something so very, very special, so unique that I cannot find words to convey what I felt. It was a dream come true.

 

“I am still trying to process the whole experience; I am still trying to come to terms with it in my mind and in my heart,” he said. “I can’t believe this really happened, but I felt very much at peace, I felt such joy at being with the pope.”

“Pope Francis is a very simple person, very attentive to every word you say. We spoke in Italian…. I joked with him.”

Mr. Abate gave the pope a painting of Mary and the child Jesus, done by a 20-year-old inmate who is awaiting trial. The pope recorded a short video message for the prisoners, which Mr. Abate will take with him on his next visit to Cook County Jail.

Asked what he discussed with the pope, Mr. Abate said, “We talked about the prison and how much people are suffering in prison, and how much money we spend for nothing, to kill people by taking away their dignity.” Francis told him about his own experience visiting prisons and how he has washed the feet of inmates on Holy Thursday.

“We talked about the prison and how much people are suffering in prison, and how much money we spend for nothing, to kill people by taking away their dignity.”

“I told him that none of my family, or myself, had ever experienced prison. I also told him I have only elementary schooling and knew little about the prison or even where it was. I said it was just a call from God that got me involved in this work with prisoners,” he said.

Mr. Abate explained he was referring to a night when he first arrived in Chicago in 1998 after a long flight from Italy. Unable to sleep because of jetlag, he turned on the television where he saw a program about the American prison system. For some reason that he doesn’t quite understand, he started writing on a notepad, and by morning had written 10 pages explaining how he wanted to change that prison system.

Mr. Abate told the pope about the program he has run for the past 14 years. “He wanted to know about it, so I explained that in addition to teaching the inmates cooking, we also now teach them music and painting. I said it is stupid what we are doing through the prison system. We pay 50,000 dollars a year to keep one person in prison, when we could use this money for something better, to educate the person or give them skills.” He explained that, because many prisons are privately run in the United States, there is an incentive to keep them filled.

In the audience with Pope Francis, Mr. Abate said:

 

We spoke about dignity. The dignity of a person is something no one should touch. You can do what you like in life: The law says you pay for what you do, so you get punished for what you do wrong, but you can’t take away dignity from a person…. That is to do him or her harm, and so that person becomes more violent if she or he comes out. That person becomes mentally ill, sees no present, no future. Yes, you give the person prison as a punishment, but you must also give the person a chance to be rehabilitated, to help them have dignity, [and you do so] with trust, with love. You give the help that enables that person to change.”

 

When America’s Rome correspondent asked Mr. Abate what more he would like to do, he replied without hesitation: “I would like to make the politicians and those who govern understand that the prison needs much assistance, the prison needs attention. It is not a place where you throw people in and just lock them up because then you create even more problems for society.”

“When I wake up in the morning, I ask God to give me the energy to carry on helping other persons,” he said. “In the future, I want to try and enter other prisons, to show that this is the solution; to give hope to the detainees. The solution is not punishment; the solution is education, rehabilitation.” According to the latest report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. prison population was 1,230,100 at the end of 2022.

Born in Naples 70 years ago, Mr. Abate said, “My mother taught me [culinary skills], so I became bravo in Italian cooking.” When as a young man he moved from Naples to Milan to work, he got involved in the food industry and set up his own company that bought “nothing but the best” of Italian food produce, “the very best Parmesan cheese, the very best hams and so on,” which he sold to delicatessens and restaurants in the city.

In 1998, he sold the business and immigrated to the United States “because I wanted to change my life a little,” he said. “I went there with money. I went to Chicago because my brother lived there, but he died of cancer not long after.”

“When I wake up in the morning, I ask God to give me the energy to carry on helping other persons," Mr. Abate said.

“My father, before he died, told me ‘Don’t marry and don’t ever open a restaurant.’ But I did both!” he remarked. He married a woman who worked in fashion design, opened and sold several successful restaurants, and now operates Tocco, located in Chicago’s North Shore, “where all the rich people live,” he said.

He began his work in prisons in 2010: “I started first with young juvenile detainees in St. Charles, [Ill.], and traveled about 60 miles a day to that place, but after 18 months they closed the program.” He didn’t understand why. Sometime later, however, “through a whole convergence of things that I see was not just coincidence, because only God can bring about such things,” a judge in the Illinois Supreme Court gained him access to Cook County Jail. Later, through a friend, he got to know Sheriff Tom Dart, “a wonderful person,” and when he told him that he owned a restaurant and wanted to give cooking lessons to the inmates, the sheriff said: “Come and see. I will show you everything [in the jail], and whatever you [would] like to do, I will make it possible for you.”

Today, the program has a waiting list of 200 people, Mr. Abate said. “In the current program, we have 48 men in the cooking section, between six and 10 in the art section and more than 10 in music.” He said they have also begun a program for the women’s section in the jail, and there are already 15 women in the cooking program.

He hopes with the blessing of the pope to triple donations to the program. He has taught some 4,000 prisoners to cook over the past 14 years, he said, on average about 200 to 250 per year, and only 10 of them have ever returned to prison.

He explained, “The solution is not just getting them work; it’s to restore what’s broken inside of these people, giving them back their dignity, their self-esteem, their self-confidence and hope.” He explained that it is difficult for many former inmates to find employment because employers perform background checks and are wary of hiring those who have been convicted of a crime.

He said Pope Francis encouraged him to “keep on doing the good work,” and when the pope asked Mr. Abate to “Pray for me. Not against me!,” the chef replied, “I pray for you every day, but you pray for me, too.” He said he told the pope, “I could spend all day here talking to you,” and Francis replied, “So could I!”

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