The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 2
The author with one of the contestants. Photo courtesy of JJ Yulo

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’

The author played judge for a day at a cooking contest held in two jails, and in the process, learned not to judge those who are forced to stay inside
JJ Yulo | Oct 28 2019

The day started innocuously enough. Morning meeting was cancelled, and gym time was done. But that’s when all normal ended. La Jefa, my boss, asked me to join her in the prison ministry activity that morning, and being the obedient dog that I am, I said “sure.” 

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 3
Before the competition begins.

The prison ministry in my parish is a two-man team. That’s all they do: think up of enriching activities for the men and women of two jails. They’re called PDLs now, in case you didn’t know: Persons Denied of Liberty. Not inmate, not jailbird. To be honest, it’s very apt. For the most part, these are people who are waiting for their sentences to be passed. In the meantime, just like their title, they are denied liberty. Living in super cramped quarters, with a tiny courtyard used for whatever activities are allowed. It’s the definition of a dreary life. 

But on that sunny morning, there was a respite from all the dreariness. That day was “Master Chef” day. 

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The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 4The author with his prison ministry companion

I’ve participated in these things before when the ministry first started it. At the first incarnation of this competition, the PDL contestants all started with the same dish: adobo. Using the same ingredients at that. Well and good, but they all did their adobo the same way. Those were really tough to judge, as you can imagine. 

Master Chef 2019, though, was different. They could request for ingredients because now, they were allowed to do their own recipes, and that made things really interesting. Each team, consisting of PDLs chosen by whatever system the powers-that-be decided on (apparently, it changes from time to time), was armed with their ingredients and basic kitchen tools: knives, cutting boards, bowls, serving vessels, a big wok, and a stove top. They had two hours to make a savory dish and a dessert. 

Emceeing and judging duties were entrusted to me, so I went full-on Kuya Germs mode and bantered and cajoled with all of them. With my senses wide open, I could tell the PDLs were all on overdrive—prepping their mise en place, and firing up their stove tops, all the while laughing and teasing each other. It was actually pretty joyful! The work was a bit intense, too—they ALL were playing to win. 

At this point, my companions and I were snooping around and chatting with them. We spied a kid—like, really young—and asked what he was in for. He answered, “Drugs, daw.” “You look so young!” “I’m 21, and still in school, taking culinary.” How sobering is that? Another girl really looked out of place—she looked foreign. When asked what they were going to make? “Shepherd’s pie.” Wuht!

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 5
The PDL contestants taking a break from the cooking to pose for the camera 

It was getting HOT. Under the makeshift tents, the heat was getting trapped, and peeps were getting sweaty. And yet there they all were, still smiling through, merrily going about their cooking, discussing their presentation and plating, and wiping the perspiration from their foreheads. 

The food was a mixed bag. I expected to see a lot of kaldereta, and tough kaldereta at that. My expectations were met famously—said dish was made by several groups to varying degrees of success. For the cuts of meat they had to work with, they would’ve needed hours, which, of course, they didn’t have. But then there were the pleasant surprises: a chicken cordon bleu with cheese sauce; shepherd’s pie more steamed than anything, but with decent flavor, sided with a perfectly seasoned beef steak; a dessert of fruit tossed in melon juice, cream, and turmeric (“Naglagay kami ng turmeric kasi healthy siya!”) and served in a burnt-out coconut shell, the most creative dish I had seen.

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 6
Chicken cordon bleu and mango float

At another jail a few days later where I did the same thing, I saw Pampanga-style chicken ala king, sweet spicy fried pork ribs with egg fried rice, and Ilonggo chili crabs and shrimp in bagoong sauce “conyo style.” Hilarious, and may I say delicious too! 

The awarding ceremony was pretty straightforward—average scores of three judges, with the top three getting big cakes and groceries. Everyone came out a winner, actually as all the groups got loot bags of groceries, too. 

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 7
Chicken tinola with pineapple

But if you take a step back, the real champions were us, the few who were present to witness the spectacle. In hearing their whoops and victory cheers, in seeing their beaming smiles of pride when presenting their food, even in watching them interact with each other in camaraderie and in the true spirit of team work—that was when it hit you that just being present was a big deal. For a few hours, and in the case of Master Chef, a few hours ONCE a year, they felt joy. And maybe even hope. Maybe one day they’ll get to see the world again, and cook and eat and enjoy a meal any time they wanted. 

The day I was judge at a prison ‘Master Chef’ 8
The author with one of the contestants and the displayed dish entries

So going home from that, after being thanked profusely by the PDLs, after taking pictures with the staff, you kinda take stock and think. We complain about horrendous traffic (fair enough, too) but these guys can’t see beyond the courtyard outside their dorms. We are bothered by the heat but we can turn on a fan, crank up the AC, enter a mall, or sit under a big tree, while they sweat and bear it with no choice. We have friends and family to call when we feel beaten by the world, while they wait and see if anyone will show up to visit. 

That night, I said thank you to the Man Upstairs for a life of freedom, not devoid of hardships, but one where I can make my own decisions. And I thought about those I saw that day—men and women from all walks who may or may not have done something wrong. Life’s tough, and can corner you to do something stupid. Or maybe you have deep issues that force you to play a bad hand. Or maybe you were hungry, or desperate. I learned that day that that doesn’t mean you can’t try to be a better person, and that everyone deserves kindness and care too.


Photos courtesy of JJ Yulo