Candido Ortiz claims he can cook anything: mashed potatoes and gravy, pernil guisado, chicken cacciatore. At his new restaurant here, El Sabor del Cafe, he will honor any request.
Ortiz honed his cooking skills in an unusual setting — a federal prison, where he was incarcerated for 26 years, 10 months, and 17 days, and where he was a chef for 24 of those years.
His time behind bars was actually much shorter than it was supposed to be. Ortiz was sentenced to 49 years and six months for his role in a cocaine trafficking network, a sentence that was imposed at the height of the nation’s war on drugs.
“When I went to jail, in the beginning, with my sentence, I think that I’m never going to be out,” Ortiz, 57, said, his chef’s uniform and hat still a fresh white on his first day at the restaurant.
Last year, Ortiz walked out of the federal correctional facility at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, his sentence reduced after President Barack Obama granted him clemency. He left prison with no money, no relatives who could help him financially, no official identification and no career experience.
But with help from the New Jersey Reentry Corp., a nonprofit run by James E. McGreevey, former New Jersey governor, Ortiz was back in a kitchen five days later, as a chef at The Light Rail Café in Jersey City.
McGreevey ticked off all the steps needed to get Ortiz back to work: contact the office of the secretary of state for Puerto Rico to get a copy of Ortiz’s original birth certificate; put together job applications; scroll employment opportunities; make sure he passed drug tests, and establish a mailing address. All the tasks, McGreevey noted, are next to impossible for a recently released, long-term inmate, particularly at this moment in time.
“This climate has only exacerbated the tension and the need to have documentation immediately available,” McGreevey said, adding that he has a list of 70 lawyers statewide who help his organization.
After having lost so much of his productive life, Ortiz was not ready to settle for a line cook job.
“I told the owner, I said, ‘I’m going to quit here when I get my own place,'” Ortiz said, as former co-workers from The Light Rail Café who had come to celebrate his opening lingered in the restaurant. “He said, ‘Oh yeah?’ He thought I was playing. But I was not. I was serious.”
Combining his savings with a $25,000 investment that the New Jersey Reentry Corp. solicited from local Hispanic business leaders, Ortiz opened the doors of his restaurant just in time for the Christmas rush and, perhaps, as organizers of holiday parties are hunting for catering of some pollo horneado (baked chicken), Costilla de cerdo (pork ribs) or lasagna.
His path to chef and owner of a restaurant on Martin Luther King Drive that offers an international cuisine was not what he had once envisioned. Born in Puerto Rico, Ortiz moved to New Jersey in the 1970s. He grew up poor and said he turned to drugs — the trafficking network was in Paterson and Passaic — when he saw the potential for “fast money.”
“When you were young, you know, you want to get fast money, you see fancy cars, you want to drive one of them,” he said. “I just started selling drugs and you know, then making money. I was making a lot of money. I could buy whatever I needed.”
He was arrested in 1990 and convicted of distributing cocaine and using and carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking crime.
He said he arrived in jail young and arrogant — “doing crazy things” — and seemingly on a course of permanent troublemaking. But soon after he moved into his prison cell, he realized that life portended a grim future and he had three children he wanted to be with.
So, he stared cooking.
“I like to eat,” he said.
It came naturally. He quickly rose from a line cook to a chef, eventually proving his kitchen prowess well enough to earn him a spot at a culinary school run by the federal prison system.
Soon he was a head chef — he boasts that he was one of the best in the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons — cooking for 1,500 to 2,500 inmates at a time in whatever prison he was in. And the varied races, ethnicities and appetites of the prison population helped him both perfect regional dishes and expand his culinary repertoire.
“I know Italian because I was in prison with a lot of Italians,” he said, noting that they helped impress upon him the importance of pasta being cooked al dente. “If it’s not,” Ortiz said, “for them, it doesn’t make sense.”
His family lives near his restaurant, and his mother and his girlfriend attended the grand opening, setting out platters of cheese and chorizo empanadas and fruit salad.
But Ortiz does not expect his restaurant to become a family affair. His long years behind bars, he said, took a toll on his relationships. He says he has kept in touch with his family, but they have their own lives that they built during the 26 years he was not around.
“Mom is old, my sister, she’s a teacher,” he said. “My kids, they’ve got their own jobs. One of them is a medical assistant. So I don’t expect to have that much help for them. I was in prison for too long. They have their own life. So I have to respect that.”
Ortiz jokes that his new life has already taken a toll on him.
“That’s why I gained weight. I taste it,” he said. “If it’s not going to be right for me, it’s not going to be right for you.”