AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Lots of culinary schools around the country have restaurants that serve meals to the public.

But Shannon Mullen reports on one program in New England where the students aren't just chefs-in-training, they're also inmates.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISHES)

SHANNON MULLEN, BYLINE: The Fife and Drum Restaurant is on the outskirts of historic Concord, Massachusetts. It has a school cafeteria feel with linoleum floors and card tables under bright blue plastic tablecloths, and it serves only lunch. But a hot meal made mostly from scratch costs just $3.21.

BOB HERTZ: When I first started coming here, it was a $1.42.

MULLEN: Bob Hertz has been having lunch here a few times a week for 20 years.

HERTZ: It's been a fantastic price, and the food's good. Some people are a little nervous about the environment. We had a group of women come from an insurance company. As they walked in, there was a frisk going on. And we saw them once, never saw them again. So it depends on the person.

MULLEN: To get a table at the Fife and Drum, first you have to go through security. The restaurant is inside the Northeast Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison.

CALVIN HODGE: Gravy looks all set. 11:15, so 15 minutes till show time.

MULLEN: Calvin Hodge is halfway through a six-year sentence. He and his fellow students have been in the kitchen since 7 a.m. prepping today's meal.

HODGE: Mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, green beans and cranberry sauce and gravy on top.

MULLEN: Today, Hodge is head chef, but the inmates rotate jobs every five weeks.

HODGE: It gives you that experience of working in a real restaurant. So when I do go home, I can say I got X-amount of time of real experience; hands on everything, feeding to the public. And I can cook pretty good. So I should be able to get a position somewhere.

MULLEN: Prison officials say their vocational education programs give inmates real skills that they can use to find work when they're released, and that reduces the risk that they'll reoffend. The culinary program spends about $500 a week on food, offset by what customers pay. And the restaurant has a lot of regulars, including Mark Higgins.

MARK HIGGINS: It's definitely different to being here for lunch, but I enjoy it very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HIGGINS: Of course, we don't want to say how really good it is because the secret will be out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

HODGE: Well, right now, I'm just serving the turkey.

MULLEN: Calvin, you might have to go like...

HODGE: A little slice.

KIM LUKETICH: ...slice and then a little piece, do you know what I mean?

MULLEN: The inmates' instructor, Kim Luketich, came here from a regular culinary school, and she says there are some unique challenges to running one in a prison. For one thing, the knives are tethered to the tables or locked in cabinets. The inmates have to learn a lot of skills on the job, in addition to waiting tables.

LUKETICH: They get to kind of get acclimated to talking to people again, associating with people again. You know, it takes a little getting used to for anybody, customer service. But, yeah, these guys are really doing a nice job.

MARK MOLINA: Nice to see you again. How are we doing? Thanks for coming in today. What can I get you?

MULLEN: Mark Molina is a first-time non-violent offender serving a three-year sentence. This month, he's waiting tables and baking desserts.

MOLINA: This baking stuff is like chemistry. You've got to get everything just right. You know, if you screw up one thing, it's - it comes out like a brick rather than a cake, you know? So...

MULLEN: But Molina says the hours go by quickly and he's grateful for that. His favorite part of the day is when he and his classmates get to sit down and try what they've made.

MOLINA: Oh man, great. Calvin, you outdid yourself buddy. You did great.

HODGE: Came out good.

MULLEN: As for Molina's baking skills, his chocolate cream pie gets an A-plus.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.

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