29 June 2023

Culinary competition aids prisoner rehabilitation


A new season of MasterChef may currently be running on TV, but fans of the series may be curious to learn about a different version that was once held – inside of a prison and led by a Corrections Officer.

Back in 2006, Michelle, a Senior Corrections Officer at Northland Regional Corrections Facility, facilitated a culinary competition for the people she was managing in prison as a way to help teach them new skills and a different mindset for when they leave prison.

“At the time, MasterChef had just come out on TV, and I thought how about we do that?”

Like the TV version, competitors were eliminated through a series of rounds, with each round also having a deeper message behind it for the men’s reintegration and rehabilitation. 

For the first round, contestants needed to use what food they had purchased themselves in the prison canteen. The message was for them to learn to work with what they have.

“This is all about you working with what you've got. Because that's all you have on the outside.

I remember the meals… We had someone cut up their boiled potatoes and lightly fried them, and they made up a little tower to represent the Eiffel Tower.”

The next round was all about being inspired by a loved one.

“The competition created a way to learn what that person meant to them – who they might’ve cared for, or who cared for them. It helped me to interact with them after, as I could ask how their loved one was doing.”

“It was also about tapping into that person’s kinder side. Then you go - how can we make that become a bigger part? They've got people who care about them, or they care about on the outside. How do we get them to focus on that more in a more pro-social way?”

The final round was a cake competition, which Michelle provided (authorised) eggs and cream for. A chocolate ganache and banana cake made up the two runner ups, but the winning creation was a blond vanilla cake with layers of stewed apple.

After the competition, one of the contestants approached Michelle and thanked her, telling her that for a few days the competition had “taken him out of this place.”

“For a few days I was somewhere else in my head.”

Michelle looks back fondly on the memory of her version. “For me, it’s all about the men’s reintegration… it’s important to work within the lines, but I like to think outside the box when I’m able to.”

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