It may be an unlikely spot for a gourmet restaurant, but lunch at the minimum-security Northeast Correctional Center in Concord is cheap, filling, and cooked from scratch.
Four days a week, diners pay $3.21 to enter one of the drab gray buildings at the Concord rotary, drop off their licenses at security, and line up for a seat at one of nine tables in the cafe known as the Fife and Drum.
Inmates serve as waiters, cooks, and busboys, all trained by chef Kim Luketich. Those who complete the 10-month culinary arts program get a Serve Safe food-handler certificate, making them eligible for work in restaurants.
“I love it,’’ said Jacqueline Friedman, an Acton resident who was one of the first customers to arrive for lunch on a recent Thursday. “It’s an experience. The guys are so nice and are trying so hard.’’
At the next table, Concord resident Dot Higgins ate with her son, Mark. They come for lunch twice a week, she said, usually after a round of errands.
Across the rotary from MCI-Concord, the Northeast Correctional Center is a minimum-security and prerelease facility with 274 inmates. Dubbed the prison farm, it once hosted a large herd of dairy cows, but the cattle that now graze on the pasture below the buildings are used for meat. A large vegetable garden on the site provides produce.
“Everything is made from scratch,’’ said Bruce Gelb, who recently marked his second year as the center’s superintendent, after spending 23 years in the corrections field.
Though the culinary training program started in 1983, Luketich has been the instructor for just a short while, and she loves her job. She teaches the whole range of restaurant duties, from menu planning to cooking to washing up, as well as waiting tables and customer service. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Mondays are for classroom instruction.
“I love helping people,’’ the chef said on a recent morning before the lunch crowd arrived. On the menu was corned beef and cabbage, boiled potatoes, onion soup au gratin, turkey or tuna wraps, Irish soda bread, chocolate-chip scones, and garden or Caesar salads.
The food budget is about $500 per week, according to Gelb.
“This is a premier program,’’ said the superintendent. “No other facility has this kind of program that allows the community to come in and eat. We have some elderly who have come daily for years. It’s a great setting, a great atmosphere.’’
“They learn quality skills,’’ said Luketich, dressed in a white chef’s jacket, her hair in a tight bun. “They learn social skills. The whole idea is that they will go back into society. That is what we focus on.’’
Before the cafe opened for the day, inmate Calvin Hodge, dressed in crisp whites and wearing a hairnet, shared his feelings about the program.
“It’s excellent,’’ said Hodge, who is from Framingham. “I’ve learned just about everything from dishwashing to cooking to serving. I get the experience of the whole kitchen.’’
The jobs rotate about every five weeks, he said, adding that he has offered menu suggestions, and once called home for a special recipe.
“I’ve gone from a felon to being able to present myself with a certificate,’’ said Hodge. “It allows people to overlook the conviction and see that I’ve turned it around.’’
His signature dish is scampi. “And meat,’’ he said. “All kinds.’’
Another program participant, Martin Morales, said he enjoys working as a team member. He worked in restaurants before his conviction, so he was “more knowledgeable about the culinary arts vocation’’ than some of the other inmates.
“But I’ve learned a lot more,’’ said Morales, who is always on time for the 7:30 a.m. start to the day. “It’s a good routine.’’ His special dish is pork and cabbage.
The state’s Criminal Offender Record Information law prohibits the prison from disclosing the nature of individual inmates’ convictions or other personal information, a prison spokeswoman said.
Of the Northeast Correctional Center’s population, 51 percent are serving time for drug offenses, 28 percent for offenses against a person, and 10 percent for crimes involving property.
Luketich said she does not allow trash or street talk in the kitchen. The inmates learn to communicate with each other as much as with the public at the lunchroom. She said most aspects of the program remain the same as when it started in 1983.
“No matter how bad the economy gets, you can always find a job in culinary,’’ said Luketich. “There are so many different jobs in the field.’’
Gelb said there is a long waiting list to get into the program, which has space for about 10 inmates a year. Each inmate has to apply, as at any other certificate program, and all participants have to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, he said. They earn $1 per day.
The program enables inmates to “get a decent paying job’’ when they are released, Gelb said. “They learn to communicate with the customer base here by waiting tables or being a short-order cook.’’
Other programs at the Northeastern Correctional Center include auto-body repair, and training for the National Education for Assistance Dog Services. Gelb said there are 10 dogs in training with the inmates.
Of the 274 inmates, “90 percent are going back’’ into society, Gelb said. “Do we want them going back knowing nothing? We are trying not to send someone back who is going to reoffend.’’Betsy Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.