It’s about an hour before dinner service, and Kurt Evans is working on an appetizer. This dish doesn’t require mincing, chopping, searing, or slicing—in fact, it has only three ingredients, and most cooks make it without the luxury of a kitchen.
The chef opens two bags of puffy orange cheese doodles to let the air out, then mashes the snacks into a powder in the bag with his hands. Next, he crumbles in spicy shrimp-flavored ramen noodles and seasoning, then a little hot water. Evans massages the bags to combine the ingredients, presses the mixture to the bottom of each bag, and rolls the packages up to let the ingredients hydrate.
This is chi chi, and it’s typically made in a prison cell by inmates, pooling snack foods that can be bought at the prison commissary or vending machines. Sometimes it’s pressed into a sort of loaf—resembling ground beef, especially if it’s made with electric-red Flamin’ Hot Cheetos—and other times it’s looser, more like noodles in a chunky sauce. It’s an essential supplement to prisoners’ diet of limited, unpalatable-by-design prison food. In addition to the base of ramen and chips or Cheetos, a batch of chi chi may include pieces of other snacks like Slim Jims, beef jerky, string cheese—whatever the cooks can get their hands on to dress up the dish.
Rather than cooking in a prison cell, however, Evans is preparing tonight’s batch of chi chi in a restaurant, where it will be served to guests attending his End Mass Incarceration (EMI) dinner series. Held throughout Philadelphia, the multicourse meals feature an amuse bouche of chi chi followed by a slate of Evans’s cooking, ranging from farm-to-table fare to soul food staples. Also on the menu is a discussion facilitated by a formerly incarcerated Black man, meant to engage diners around issues related to the U.S. criminal justice system, which incarcerates Black people at a rate of about five times higher than whites.
While the first event took place in January at Rx The Farmacy, a brunch spot just off the University of Pennsylvania campus, the dinner Evans is preparing on this Sunday in February is hosted by El Compadre, a torta and taco mecca in South Philly’s Italian Market neighborhood. Between the two series dinners he has hosted so far, Evans has served—and educated—around 50 diners, and he’s raised about $1,000 for two prison-related nonprofits.
The goal for the EMI dinner series is to make the problem of mass incarceration a household conversation, says Evans. “It’s easy for those affected by it, including family and friends of those in the system, to be forgotten. But through discussion, we can keep them in the front of our minds, [and] community members can troubleshoot and devise plans to fix the broken system.”
In the chef’s West Philly community and in his family, incarceration was commonplace. When he was a kid and the uncle he looked up to the most was locked up, “I wanted to go to jail too—that’s what I knew,” says Evans. “He told me that’s not what you want to do.”
Coming Up in the Restaurant Industry
Evans, who is Black, started his cooking education early. When he was young, his mother worked for Aramark food services and would take him to work in a hospital cafeteria with her. There, he learned the basics from the guys in the kitchen as long as he stayed out of sight. After that, he worked his way up to fine-dining kitchens in Philadelphia, reading up on recipes and techniques to expand his skill set. (His personal cookbook library totals close to a thousand.)
Evans started his own high-end catering business, Signature Catering, in 2014 and later ran Route 23, a neighborhood restaurant in the city’s Germantown section. Overseeing the restaurant, he found himself hiring kitchen staff who couldn’t get work elsewhere because they’d been incarcerated.
“Being a small business owner, I didn’t have [applicants] do background checks,” says Evans, “but these guys come to you truthfully.” Since he had a similar background and understood their challenging situation, Evans didn’t judge. “[My business partner] at the time would say, ‘If we don’t give them a shot, who will?’”
While Evans was coming into his own as a chef and restaurateur, he got connected to Cristina Martinez and Benjamin Miller, chef-owners of South Philly Barbacoa (now El Compadre). The couple have used the critical praise they’ve received from local and national food media to raise awareness about the injustice and risk faced by undocumented workers, especially in the service industry. (Martinez has publicly come out as undocumented to draw attention to this issue.)
Evans served as a guest chef for Martinez and Miller’s #Right2Work dinner series, a similar program that uses meals as a way to educate the community; he also closed his restaurant during their A Day Without Immigrants protest last year.
With all this in mind, he decided he wanted to do something to help a cause that affected his own community.
After a lifetime of seeing friends and relatives get sucked into the prison pipeline, combined with new information on the failings of the justice system courtesy of Ava DuVernay’s 13th and the Jay-Z-produced documentary about incarcerated teen Kalief Browder. The films didn’t surprise Evans, but he says noticed that, “when other people [saw them], they were shocked.”
“I know plenty of people sitting [in prison] who don’t have bail and can’t get a hearing,” he continued. “I wanted to get other people from different backgrounds involved and raise awareness.” Food seems like an obvious way to do that.
“My whole life, I’ve never heard anyone ever say ‘I don’t like to eat,’” says Evans. “Food is the perfect vehicle [to connect people].”
He uses the proceeds from the dinners to support Books Through Bars, a West Philly-based nonprofit that collects, packs, and sends books requested by people in prison. He has been donating cookbooks and food books from his collection to the organization—trade-instructional manuals are one of the most-requested genres—and invites his dinner guests to do the same.
The effort has also raised money for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, an organization that posts bail for Philly residents who cannot afford it and educates the public on the inequities inherent in requiring cash bail.
The Dinner at El Compadre
In addition to chi chi, Evans prepared soul food-inspired dishes like Sriracha deviled eggs topped with shards of crispy chicken skins, a citrusy kale salad, and cornmeal-fried catfish served over pickled okra relish.
Once the approximately 25 guests had taken their seats, it was time for the meal and the discussion to begin. Carl Day, founder of Culture Changing Christians, a nonprofit that works to end gun violence, support education, and defeat poverty in Black communities, led an informal conversation. In attendance were a former corrections officer, a retired prison counselor, a college professor, law students, and social workers.
The discussion touched on what it’s really like to be in prison, what happens when your family can’t bail you out, the mandatory minimums that keep people locked up with extensive sentences for minor infractions, and the cruel economics of private prisons.
As a pastor and a onetime prisoner, Day has seen the way the criminal justice system traps and oppresses people, especially people of color and those in poverty. He cited statistics and shared his own experiences with both incarceration and community service
“This problem is tearing families apart and putting cities in debt,” said Day. “The issue weighs more heavily on minorities, but it’s really a class issue—an issue of capitalism, even more than color,” he continued. “Even before they build these [facilities], they’re promising that they’re going to keep them at least 90 percent filled.”
By the time the guests began eating their dessert—deconstructed sweet potato pie—the discussion had shifted to encompass the responsibilities people on the outside have to those on the inside. Diners talked about how to bring them home, how to keep them safe, and how to dismantle the system.
Ideas floated up from the tables. “Watch out for each other.” “Talk to your neighbors.” “Vot[ing] out toxic politicians [is necessary], but making change at the local level—running for ward leader, volunteering in your community—is just as important.”
“It helps you to realize that no matter where we come from, we’re all a community,”said diner Keola Harrington, an assistant treasurer for the city of Philadelphia, as the meal came to an end. “It’s up to us to do more for the people around us. Just existing isn’t good enough. We need to create a better world, a better culture, and this definitely sparked that for me.”
With two dinners under his belt, Evans’ movement is growing. He’s planning more events in Philadelphia and an EMI dinner in New York. Philly native hip-hop drummer Questlove even tweeted about the series recently from his @questlovesfood account.
The chef is looking forward to reaching more people. “I remember when Ben and Cristina started, only about five people came out,” recalls Evans. “I think one of the last [#Right2Work] dinners we did had 200-something people.
“Now I feel like I’m an ambassador for this movement,” he says. “I feel really good about it.”
All photographs by Clay Williams for Civil Eats. Top photo: Chef Kurt Evans creates chi chi with Pastor Carl Day as the two prepare for the second dinner in the End Mass Incarceration series.