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Teacher Spotlight: SCI Waymart's James Mitchell

March 03, 2019 12:00 AM
By: Kurt Bopp

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Teacher Feature - Mitchell.pngThe life of a chef can be tough.

The work is demanding, the hours are long and atmosphere can be intense.

For James Mitchell, it meant moving and working up and down the east coast, including jobs in Florida, Maine and Boston—which was in a 5-star restaurant.

In Sept. 2002, Mitchell took a job in a different kind of kitchen: the kitchen at SCI Waymart. For five years he worked as a food service instructor, and in 2007 he became the Restaurant Trades instructor.

And it was all for his family.

"I have two boys, and they're my life," Mitchell said. "I'm able to have more of a family life than with the chef life."

Chef Mitch, as he's known to his inmates, teaches three different courses: the 6-week ServSafe class; the 12-week retail commercial baking class; and the intensive 36-week culinary arts cook level 2 class. It all begins with ServSafe, then inmates pick which they want to take if they choose to continue.

"We don't make anything so large," Chef Mitch said. "Just enough for the class to eat. They enjoy it because they're in jail and this is good food. We share to the control center or other teachers.

"They enjoy seeing the outcome and tasting their product."

The biggest hurdle Chef Mitch faces is the education level of his students. Although Waymart boasts some "unbelievable" teachers, he said, a lot of his students enter the programs struggling with math and measurements.

The complexity of cooking is the biggest surprise to his new classes.

Culinary Pictures for T. Fazio  09-14-18 082.jpg"They think they're just going to cook some food," he said. "Then they realize everything behind it. They don't realize what it's called or how it actually works."

After release, Chef Mitch's students have gone on to make very successful careers in the culinary arts. Some inmates report to counselors that they've found success thanks to Chef Mitch and his class.

But the biggest special moment that drives it home for him happens right in SCI Waymart.

"When we do our graduation ceremony, my class provides the food for it," Chef Mitch said. "The inmates get to perform for this. One guy's family came and saw him graduate and make the food. His parents were very proud of him that he has a successful thing.

"It makes you feel good when you see someone doing well."

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