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Crusading Chef Bruno Abate

Bruno Abate

Bruno Abate

When the ultra-picky Michelin Guide passed judgment on Tocco in funky Wicker Park, they began with a flattering question: “Are we in Milan or Wicker Park?” And just a year prior, Tocco won an OpenTable Diners’ Choice Award in 2013.

But for all the bragging he could do about his restaurant, owner/chef Bruno Abate has something else he wants to discuss. Just before the dinner rush — in a mod dining room with white, ski-slope chairs — Abate projects a video on the wall that shows him talking to nearly 40 inmates at Cook County Jail.

Rather than prison blues or grays, the inmates wear crisp white shirts and chef’s hats. The pride in their faces is obvious. “Do you want to live here forever?” Abate asks. “I will teach you something. I will give you the possibility to have a job when you are out of here.”

It’s part of a program Abate created called Culinary Mission for Change, or cm4c for short. “It’s the only program I know in the United States that does food training in jail,” says Abate, who was born in Naples and raised in Milan. “It started when I was visiting my daughter in Italy, who told me about a girl whose father was in jail.” And in that Padua jail, they’d started programs teaching inmates how to cook and build bicycles.

Abate picks up the story: “When I came back from Italy, I had jet lag and couldn’t sleep. At 3:30 in the morning, I was watching a story on TV about how many juveniles were in jail. And I knew I had to do something.”

That “something” has turned into a remarkable program where inmates train hard: They put in 25 hours a week for 3 months, totaling 300 hours. Abate supervises and teaches them all the way, a tough task in addition to running his restaurant.

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None of this would be possible without the backing of law enforcement officials, and Sheriff Tom Dart has been a huge supporter of cm4c. “He loves the program and he sees the progress,” Abate says. “He’s just an unbelievable person; he gives me all the support he can to make this happen.”

True to his word, graduates of cm4c who’ve left jail have gotten jobs at Tocco, or been placed at local supermarkets and other food establishments. “When you come outside you have to have a chance,” he says. “That’s what this country is based on and that’s what I try to do — to give back the hope, the self esteem and the dignity.”

He also dreams of growing cm4c, not just in the Chicago area but across the country. “If we spend $3 trillion on the prison system, and there are 3.4 million people in jail, think about what we could save if we educate people instead of jailing them,” he notes. “We’d save money and we’d save lives.”

To find out more about cm4c, or to get involved, visit cm4change.org or contact Abate at Tocco, 1266 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-687-8895

About Lou Carlozo

Lou Carlozo is award-winning journalist who spent 20 years reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chicago Tribune. He began writing for Fra Noi in 2007, and claims maternal and paternal southern Italian lineage. The monthly Lou&A columnist and a music reviewer/writer, his work has appeared in Reuters, Aol, The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and news outlets around the world. In 1993, he was a Pulitzer Prize team-reporting finalist for his contributions to the Tribune’s “Killing Our Children” series. He resides in Chicago with his wife of 21 years, a hospital chaplain, and their teenage son and daughter.