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From cooking behind the walls to cooking for ‘Friendsgiving’

Formerly incarcerated, re-entering citizens prepare holiday feast for South Boston community

Matthew Eadie
From cooking behind the walls to cooking for ‘Friendsgiving’
Chef Chris Faison (center) and a student chef. PHOTO: COURTESY CHRIS FAISON

When Chris Faison and his business partner Ashlie Bermudez began discussing ways to “rewrite the Thanksgiving story” in South Boston this holiday season, it quickly became apparent that giving back to the community needed to also be a primary goal. The question was how to combine the two — until Faison had an idea.

Faison, a chef and the lead culinary instructor at New England Culinary Arts Training, joined five of his culinary students, all formerly incarcerated adults from the Suffolk County House of Correction, on Nov. 18 to cook a “Friendsgiving” meal for the community of South Boston.

The students were formerly a part of NECAT’s re-entry program, which provides culinary training to adults while they are incarcerated and helps them find lasting and fulfilling employment once released. They cooked a Thanksgiving meal for 60 attendees at the event.

Chris Faison and culinary students at the buffet table. PHOTO: COURTESY CHRIS FAISON

Faison said he hopes events like this can help rewrite the narrative and stigma surrounding formerly and currently incarcerated people, allowing these individuals to be seen for what they are — people.

“Everyone makes a mistake,” Faison said. “I think you should not be held against your mistakes if you paid your time … and people hold those against people who are incarcerated. I want people to understand that they’re people too.”

Bermudez said it wasn’t until working with Faison that she realized how difficult it was for people who were formerly incarcerated to return to the workforce.

“Having this event really allows us to have a tough conversation, but in a way that it is welcoming and enjoyable, but still serious and gets to the point,” Bermudez said.

In 2022, former governor Charlie Baker announced $1.68 million in grants to 14 organizations for reentry workforce development, targeting formerly incarcerated citizens to help them find employment and receive training once released.

“If you want to move forward, this is the program to move forward,” Faison said.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, as of 2022 there were approximately 6,236 incarcerated adults across the state, a 9% decrease from 2021 and 45% decrease from 2013.

“The point of this program is to stop people from going back in the Suffolk County House of Correction,” Faison said. “This is not for me, it’s for my students.”

Bermudez said she doesn’t want the event to be looked at as a charity event because “returning citizens should be seen as more than just a charity cause.”

“They should be seen as people who get to work who get to earn a living no matter where they are doing that,” she said. “Whether that’s in the kitchen or on Wall Street.”

All proceeds from ticket sales will go to cooks at the event, which partnered with the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and other organizations.

Jude David, president of the association’s Boston chapter, called the partnership with Faison a “no-brainer.”

“My goal and one of the goals of Boston NABCJ is creating a coalition of nonprofits and resources for the city,” David said. “This is definitely [the] first of many.”

David said that he hopes the “Friendsgiving” event brings the community together in more ways than one.

“You want to talk about giving people a second chance opportunities, this is the type of event to go to,” David said. “It just brings the light back into the community.”

For Faison, someone who found love for cooking from a young age and carried it through to a lifelong career, it’s personal.

“Culinary changed my life,” Faison said. “And I want to use it to give back to somebody else.”

culinary arts, incarceration, NECAT, Thanksgiving