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From Prison Cook to Praised Pizza Chef

A former Pennsylvania prisoner is now a chef at a Philadelphia pizzeria, which was named one of the 50 best in the U.S. by the Washington Post on August 31, 2023.

Those held in the same cell block with Mike Carter may have already tried his pizza, though with more improvised ingredients. For Carter, no mozzarella, oregano, tomatoes or dough meant no problem; Cheez-­It crackers, barbeque sauce and ramen noodles could all be purchased at the commissary, and they made up his pizza behind bars.

Carter honed a natural curiosity about cooking over 12 years of incarceration, beginning when he was just 16. Before his last release in 2017, he served three sentences, joining the 44% of released American prisoners who return to jail or prison. Staying out was difficult, until he wrapped up his last sentence—for a probation violation—and found a job at Down North Pizza. One of Philadelphia’s most popular restaurants, it hires only former prisoners.

The restaurant is a project of Down North Foundation, an anti-­recidivism nonprofit. Founder Muhammad Abdul-­Hadi said that for released prisoners, “There’s a big stigma. They’ve been dehumanized for so long. We focus on humanizing individuals, and allowing people to see that they should not be defined by a mistake they made.”

In addition to steady work, Down North Pizza also offers employees housing and pro bono legal services. Now its Executive Chef, Carter has also launched a catering service on the side, and he’s writing a cookbook to be published in 2025.

“We are not our worst mistakes,” he said. “There is redemption for everybody.”  


Source: Washington Post

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