Inmates show off their culinary skills: Tasty treats top well-known chef in bakeoff

Judges taste their way through submitted desserts at a bakeoff competition inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna Thursday morning. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — Well-known chef Robbie Jester wants a rematch.

His cooking foes are probably fine with that.

Good-natured competition was the theme inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center Thursday morning.

An inmate-concocted chocolate meringue cake bested Mr. Jester’s cinnamon roll with pumpkin butter and salted caramel in a morning bakeoff.

Warden Dana Metzger was among four judges who tasted several treats without knowing the cooks, then picked the top two.
After a short delay as the suspense built, Vaughn’s culinary program was deemed the winner.

Noting his self-induced “sugar rush,” the warden saluted the 12 inmates who presented their tasty creations for scrutiny.

“You can tell that these were all made with a lot of pride,” he said. “There wasn’t a bad one and all had a different variety of taste.”
Based on their restaurant-ready look alone, Mr. Jester immediately knew the quality desserts he was up against.

Chef Robbie Jester of High 5 Hospitality readies to present his cinnamon buns to judges inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna Thursday morning. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“From what I’m seeing today, I’m underprepared,” he said respectfully with a smile.

Mr. Jester, whose shrimp scampi trumped all on the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” competition in 2015, promised to return to Vaughn. He visited once before and encouraged inmates to stay the course and consider joining the culinary industry when released from custody.
There was a noticeable bounce in the inmates’ step Thursday, but each day inside the Vaughn’s kitchen is a blessing, Ronaldo Williams said.

“This is my passion and the program opened my eyes to what I can do when I return to society,” he said, adding that he aims to open a food truck business upon release.

Fellow inmate Tony Drummond, from Rehoboth Beach, believes the program “will give me a chance to succeed, give me another tool in the box to start over and avoid ever returning inside.”

Shelly Dillon, culinary instructor at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, consults with an inmate prior to the competition. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Culinary Instructor Shelly Dillon described the program as “phenomenal.

“I get choked up, I really do. This gives them a sense of pride and they’ve all worked so hard to produce something that’s of great quality.

“It’s nice to know that I’ve had some part in that.

“I thought some of the recipes they were going to do would be too advanced but they pulled them off by working at a very high level.”

Inmates concocted a winning chocolate meringue cake at Thursday morning’s bakeoff competition inside James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna.

Other judges included DOC Bureau Chief Paul Shavack and Treatment Administrative Specialist Wanda Torres, along with restaurant manager Jamie Birch, who learned her culinary skills while incarcerated at Delores J. Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.

Afterward, Ms. Birch urge inmates to continue with their training; she earlier explained that “if you just have that one person who will take a chance on you by working hard” then the payoff will bring stability while readjusting to life outside.

The culinary program follows curriculum designed by the National Restaurant Association.

The Delaware Department of Education manages the prison’s education programs, including the culinary operation.

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