Doing Thyme Gourmet Cooking Lessons for German Convicts

Behind the walls of an Aachen prison, jailbirds are learning to cook. Their high-security haute cuisine debut comes in October, when they will cook for local dignitaries -- behind bullet-proof glass.

By Oliver Rahayel in Aachen


Aachen's high-security prison serves as a grim surrogate home for over 800 hardened criminals -- murderers, drug dealers, arsonists, child molesters. In the bad old days, when capital punishment was still legal in Germany, condemned prisoners came here from Koblenz and Cologne to be guillotined.

But this October, Aachen Penitentiary (JVA Aachen) will mount an experiment which is previously unheard of in Germany. It will host a gourmet meal for paying, privileged guests -- prepared and served by convicts.

Local Aachen society, at €75 ($104) a head, will dine on fillet of John Dory on ratatouille, suckling pig, parfait with apriocots and cinnamon zabaione. The menu will be overseen by Maurice de Boer, a Dutch master chef who runs the Ratskeller, a well-known Aachen restaurant located under the city hall. He and other gourmet chefs are teaching the convicts to cook.

"For us it'll be like a test," says Hermann S., a 50-year-old convicted cocaine lord, who helped develop the idea for the cooking course. (According to the prison cook book, he specializes in "South American" cuisine.)

The cooking program belongs to an ambitious, eight-year-old cultural project at the Aachen prison which has brought concerts and theater productions by outside artists to spark the prisoners' imagination -- but also activities for the prisoners themselves, like classical piano lessons.

Hermann S., who edits the prison paper, has pointed out a trend toward prison projects with a commercial tinge. He mentions a project for Berlin prisoners who assemble and sell a line of clothes called "Häftling" ("Jailbird") on the Internet. The idea isn't to exploit the prisoners, but to teach them a skill and give them a way out of lethargy and depression.

Prison director Brigitte Kerzl helped develop the restaurant idea in Aachen. It's not entirely original: In the Tuscan town of Volterra, Italian Mafiosi and other high-security prisoners cook regularly for outside guests. Kerzl says the cultural activities -- which take up about a quarter of her time on the job -- not only engage the prisoners' hands and brains, but also "lower the level of antagonism between prisoners and guards."

The cooking students have learned to whip up lamb filet in rosemary jus and duck breast with caramelized cherries. For the restaurant project in October, some are also learning how to serve guests -- among whom, that evening, will be heads of the district court, the Aachen police, and the public prosecutor's office, as well as personalities from Aachen arts and business circles. They've all been invited by Maurice de Boer. He says he's donated his time because he wants to "help people who want to improve themselves."

Since the Aachen prison doesn't, in fact, have a gourmet restaurant, the organizers will do their best to convert an upstairs staff cafeteria into something luxurious. Brigitte Kerzl will do her best to provide a convivial atmosphere, in the form of dimmed lights, candles and tablecloths. And at least the windows there have no bars on them, even if they are bullet-proof.

But Hermann S. has modest expectations. "Let's not get carried away," he says. "We're not exactly the Ratskeller here."

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