A slice of love: Italian chef teaches inmates to make pizza and earn a living in Chicago jail

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CHICAGO (CBS NEWS) — With Italian flair, Milan-born chef Bruno Abate runs a bustling Chicago pizza kitchen with tomatoes imported from Italy, a brick oven and busy blades that chained to the table.

“Let the knife do the job … The knife is like a violin,” Abate said as CBS News was shown the Cook County Jail, where artisan pizza is made by inmates.

For inmates under close watch, a select group train under this master chef and mentor, Bruno Abate.

“You know, God give me this responsibility, OK. He called me eight years ago, I answered the phone,” Abate told CBS News. “I have a purpose, not a purpose to buy three Rolex, big house, two Ferrari. My goal is to change something in the prison system.”

And change he did. He created “Recipe For Change,” where he pairs knife skills with life skills.

“We have people here, the majority of their life experience was on the street, so they never challenge themselves to make pizza or to do anything,” Abate said. “And now through the pizza they understand ‘I can do it. I can do it.'”

Just ask Horace Wilder, who was 26 when we met him inside Abate’s kitchen. He was sentenced on a gun charge.

“I’ve never had a job in life, so this is like getting me prepared so when I go out there I can get a job,” he said, while making pizza by the prison’s brick oven. “It’s crazy. It’s just like hustling, though you’re just selling pizza and not drugs.”

“I think Chef Bruno is a genius,” said inmate Brian Keyes. “The lessons and the love they show us. It’s a mutual thing. I love them back.”

“I’m here to bring love,” Abate said. “To make them understand, you know, we make mistake in life, but what I say all the time, when we touch the bottom, what we do?”

“You can only go up,” Keyes answered him.

“Exactly,” Abate nods.

To spread the love, Abate added music, art — where inmates imitate icons — and is fundraising for a women’s program. Sheriff Tom Dart oversees it all.

“This is the criminal justice system, how can we conceivably screw it up more than it is?” Dart asked.

Dart said of the hundreds who’ve participated in Bruno Abate’s programs, none have returned to his jail, bucking a 70% national recidivism rate.

“The majority are people who have made mistakes who came from an area with very little opportunities. Given opportunities, they’ll change their lives,” he said.

Take Sergio Rodriguez, who after a five-year drug sentence, worked at Abate’s restaurant. He said Bruno helped him learn how to wait for a pay check.

“I used to make hundreds in a day or in a week, thousands easily,” Rodriguez said. “And here you have to wait for that pay check, it’s hard.” Rodriguez’s pizzas are some of the best in Chicago, according to Abate.

“My philosophy is to make them understand that you are human … like me,” Abate said. “I get emotional when I think of the love I receive here. I always cry. I cry when I’m happy.”

A slice of love, where you’d least expect it.

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