Prisoners escape to… local kitchen?

Brave new culinary reality show puts ex-convicts in star chef’s restaurant

MARC THUET AND his wife, Biana Zorich, have been media darlings since the French chef hit Toronto’s restaurant scene in the 1980s. A tattooed, hard-living, cigarette-smoking bear of a man, Thuet’s rock ’n’ roll take on French cuisine solidified his spot as one of Toronto’s few celebrity chefs. With his latest foray — a reality TV show chronicling a restaurant run by ex-convicts — his star is once again on the rise.

Just a few months ago, Bite Me, the couple’s take on “recession dining,” closed its doors only to become an even simpler and more accessible version of itself. With the opening of their new concept restaurant, Conviction, Thuet is about to make his TV debut.

“Marc and I had this idea a few years ago,” says Zorich. “We wanted to help people who are paroled, or about to be paroled, find a trade, teach them a skill, something they can learn and use once they reintegrate themselves into society.

“For security reasons, the government wouldn’t allow us to go into the jails, and as time went on, we decided to open our own restaurant around that idea.” They searched high and low for a new location, but nothing fit until they were approached with the idea of doing a reality show, and it all just clicked.

“We were not looking for a change. I had just renovated our restaurant less than a year ago and turned it into Bite Me, and it got reviewed and did great business,” says Zorich. “This came up, and I really wanted to find something small, like 30 seats, but nothing fit.”

Conviction Kitchen brought in 84 former inmates for the job interview of a lifetime, and they were eventually whittled down to 13 — in front of the watchful eyes of reality show cameras.

Of the 13, seven will work the kitchen of the restaurant, alongside Thuet, while six will work the front of the house with Zorich, serving tables and greeting patrons.

“It’s not rocket science,” Thuet explains. “People with steady jobs and a steady income are less likely to wind up back in jail.”

When I previewed the show in Biana’s office, it looked just as polished and entertaining as anything Gordon Ramsay puts his name on.

Fights, tears, yelling, throwing of kitchen utensils and lunacy all make for good television, and Conviction Kitchen promises just that. One ex-con was dropped from the show for threatening Zorich after a request to cut his hair, another after he was found shooting heroin at the back of the restaurant.

“We do weird food here. We kill lamb ourselves, we pick our own pigs, we pick our own vegetables, so we help local farmers to begin with.”

David Jackson, a 44-year-old from Baltimore, answered an Internet job ad never thinking he would end up being one of the few convicts left standing during the show’s first season.

“I was looking for employment, so I could stay in the country,” he says. “The prize of this reality show is as simple as that. It’s not about getting kicked off the island or winning a million dollars.”

Jackson spent time in jail after getting caught four years ago for possession. After that, he got a criminal record; had 18 months of supervised probation, urine analysis twice a week; and went through all the required drug classes.

“I wouldn’t say this opportunity helped me turn my life around, but at the state that I was in about a year and a half ago, where my confidence was shot, because I had just gone through a divorce, it made all the difference,” he says.

“I got my confidence back. It made everything feel more stable. Now I have a little money in my pocket, whereas before I had absolutely nothing. It stabilized me at a time when I needed to be stabilized.”

Thuet knew that he couldn’t expect people who had never stepped into a kitchen to cook his high-end menu that he had spent years cultivating, so he adapted it to make sure that the contestants could create and prepare food he was proud of.

“The menu is a bit simpler, obviously,” says Thuet. “If you train people to do a certain style of food, it has to be more about the basics and fundamentals. So now we have a more Mediterranean influence. There is pasta and pizza, staples that we never had before.”

On top of the publicity the show has already and will continue to provide, the reality show also gave the chef and his wife a new perspective on how some people in Toronto live.

While the couple have kids and live in a nice residential neighborhood where most families are just like them, the show’s contestants really opened their eyes.

“The show is not just about the restaurant, it’s actually about these people,” Thuet explains.

“It follows these guys home, whatever it is they call a home. Some of them live in crack houses because they can’t find a landlord who will take them on. You see some of the reality of what life is like when people come out of jail. And then they became a part of the family even more so. And right away Biana became ‘Mamma.’”

Zorich didn’t know that her reaction to the process would be so strong, and the experience humbled her a lot.

“It surprised me how much patience, understanding and genuine sympathy I had toward people,” Zorich confesses. “Before this, we were really business oriented. Now it’s still business, but we realize our journey here is so short.”

This has been a big year full of changes for the couple. They closed the doors on their Bloor Street BBQ joint, Cluck, Grunt & Low, and opened two new patisseries. And to have new employees that knew nothing about the business they have worked so hard to cultivate was an adjustment for everyone. Contestants worked the front and back of house and had masters of the trade helping them along.

“I had never served before, so this is something new,” says Jackson. “Biana has taught us so much; it’s fun and I enjoy it.” As the show demonstrates, the restaurant business is about so much more than food. Long hours, high heat and never-ending stress create bonds that are similar to family.

“Once you work in a restaurant, it transcends race, background, gender, everything,” Zorich says. “And the ones who have survived this process are foodies at heart, they just didn’t necessarily know it. And we do weird food here. We kill lambs ourselves, we pick our own pigs, we pick our own vegetables, so we help local farmers to begin with.

“For the most part, they all appreciated it and were excited about it as much as we are.” Conviction Kitchen premieres on Citytv in September. Conviction, the restaurant, is located at 609 King St. W., 416-603-2777.

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