How Italian Chef Bruno Abate is Cooking with Compassion

“This wasn’t just an idea. It’s a passion, a call from God. It’s my life.” –Chef Bruno Abate

Chicago’s Chef Bruno Abate is celebrated for his innovative take on authentic Italian food, but his real Recipe for Change is about giving inmates a second chance through cooking.

In Italy, they say that food is love. For Bruno Abate, celebrated chef and award-winning restaurateur at Tocco in Chicago, food is more than that – it’s a chance for a fresh start.

Through his innovative cooking program, Recipe for Change, at Illinois’ Cook County Jail, Abate is offering cooking skills, kindness, responsibility, compassion and the opportunity to turn one’s life around.

Abate was inspired to get involved with rehabilitation after a visit to the Illinois Youth Center, a medium security facility. “I get emotional,” he says. “I’ve traveled all over the world. Everything you could see, I’ve seen. But to see all of those kids like that…I couldn’t believe it as a human.”

More than a typical cooking class, the highly competitive three-month program – with a waitlist of over 1,700 applicants – teaches valuable workforce skills to non-violent inmates through the art of cooking Italian cuisine.

The first meal Abate taught his students was a classic Italian favourite: pasta al pomodoro. Abate recalls how he carefully introduced each authentic ingredient, encouraging his students to pause and take in the aroma of basil –his own connection to food being deeply sensory. It’s an experience he’s compelled to share. “This wasn’t just an idea. It’s a passion, a call from God. It’s my life,” he says.

The curriculum goes deeper than kitchen fundamentals: students must also demonstrate the confidence and professionalism that’s necessary for success beyond prison walls. “The beauty of hitting the bottom is you can only go up,” he says with a smile.

Since the program’s inception in 2011, Abate has taught over 700 inmates and the program has received numerous grants and donations. There’s also a full-length documentary about the program called ‘Serving Time,’ and Abate was recently featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

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