Former inmates now run Flagler County kitchen thanks to jail cooking class

Hiring and keeping restaurant staff has been a struggle for restaurant owners over the last few years

FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. – News 6 is seeing the results of a unique jail cooking class that began last year.

Four of the former Flagler County Jail inmates who learned how to cook and work in a kitchen thanks to the cooking class have been released from jail and for the past several months have been employed at Beach Front Grille in Flagler Beach – and they’re cooking with gas!

Working in a hectic restaurant kitchen is trial by fire.

The only way former inmates Jason Rogers and David Conolly can keep up in the kitchen is because of the professional training they received during their most recent stay inside the Flagler County Jail.

[INSIDER EXTRA: Hear more from Jamie Bourdeau, owner of Beach Front Grille]

Jamie Bourdeau, owner of Beach Front Grille, partnered with Jail Chief Daniel Engert to make the 10-week jail cooking class possible. Bourdeau lends his head chef Rami, to the jail twice a week to teach inmates food prep, cooking, serving, and cleanup, all under pressure.

“I was asked to do something that helps us out as well and I had no thoughts that this was going to happen,” Bourdeau said.

Bourdeau pays Rami for his time for one of the two weekly jail visits. Excess jail funds pay for the second visit.

And his investment is paying dividends.

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“These guys [the former inmates] are on time, they work hard, they’re not doing it for the camera, they’re not doing it for me, they do it because that’s what they do,” Bourdeau said. “They were trained well in the jail.”

Hiring and keeping restaurant staff has been a struggle for Central Florida restaurant owners over the last few years, Bourdeau included.

But if the jail partnership was a success, Bourdeau would gain competent and committed employees and the former inmates would have an incentive and purpose to stay out of jail. Bourdeau even arranged housing for the cooks down the street from his restaurant.

As it turned out, the partnership has been a resounding success, according to Bourdeau.

“Honest to God it’s undeserving, they do all the work,” Bourdeau said. “It shows more about their personality than mine.”

Bourdeau, a former police officer from Rensselaer, New York, has lined his restaurant walls with patches from police departments around the country. The patches are separated by a line - a literal thin blue line. Bourdeau appreciates the irony: former inmates, some of them career criminals, working alongside the thin blue line.

“They’re good guys, made some mistakes, but they’re grateful people,” Bourdeau said. “There’s some people, good people, that need work and are looking to get ahead and they would do great things if you just given the opportunities.”

Former inmate-turned-cook Jason Rogers, who admits to being arrested 15 times, was grilling vegetables and burgers when News 6 visited.

Bourdeau picked up Rogers from a gas station outside the jail because no one else came for him.

“When you’re in this situation and you see people willing to fight for you, it kind of encourages you to pick up your own bootstraps and do what you’re supposed to do,” Rogers said. “I just want to say thank you for everything. He [Bourdeau] took a shot on me, took a chance on me and I appreciate that.”

David Connelly completed the cooking class alongside Rogers and was released most recently from jail late last year. He washes dishes.

“He’s [Bourdeau is] putting faith in me like that so I’m going to return the favor,” Conelly said. “I’m going to really work. And I’ll show it to him. The first time I’ve had an actual job in four years.”

Conelly said he expects to be waiting tables soon.

“I’m excited,” Connelly said. “I want to change. Now I have something to motivate me.”

The next 10-week cooking class at the jail just started headed again by Bourdeau’s head chef Rami.

Former inmate Rogers is assisting Rami, not just to help teach the new inmates how to cook, but to show them how the class can change their lives for the better – if they want it to.

Bourdeau, who is opening two more restaurants, has committed to hiring more former inmates who complete the cooking class.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.