JERSEY CITY, NJ — A former prison chef is living his dream ever since his nearly 50 year prison sentence was commuted by President Barack Obama.
Candido Ortiz was granted clemency at the end of 2016 after he’d served nearly 27 years of his sentence for drug trafficking.
“In August 3, President Barack Obama set me free, told me I was going to be released on December 1,” Ortiz said.
During his time in the prison system, Ortiz said he took course after course, earning dozens of certifications but he paid special attention to his culinary training. For 24 years he cooked for his fellow inmates and worked in the prison kitchen from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on some days.
“The best way to learn is by watching, so I watched other people do it and then I do it my way. After I started cooking, people started liking my food. I was one of the best cooks in prison,” Ortiz said.
In just one year he went from being a prison chef to owning his own restaurant. Ortiz said he did it thanks to the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, which was started by former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey. The organization has a simple goal and that is to help connect people coming out of incarceration to sustainable jobs.
“We turned somebody who was a ward of the state, costing the federal government money and now he’s a tax payer, a small businessman, reunited with family. It’s good for the community. It’s good for him. It’s good for America,” said McGreevey.
Ortiz briefly worked at a local restaurant, but in about a year’s time with financial help from the NJ Reentry corporation, he opened El Sabor del Cafe. He can cook practically anything, but his restaurant focuses on American and Spanish cuisine.
His location in Jersey City is no accident for Ortiz. He wanted to return to his neighborhood, which he says is troubled with drug related problems and show his community a different path by leading by example.