Ex-con who learned to cook in prison opens restaurant

Posted: Updated:

A Jersey City man who spent most of his adult life in prison opened his first restaurant Tuesday.

Candido Ortiz, owner of El Sabor del Café in Jersey City, says that he learned to cook while in prison.

“I did in federal prison 26 years, nine months, 56 days,” he says.

Ortiz was sentenced in 1990 to 49 ½ years in federal prison for dealing drugs. He was 27 years old at the time. He says he volunteered in the prison’s kitchen to help pass the time.

After earning several culinary certificates, he became the head cook -- managing 20 cooks and preparing meals for as many as 2,500 inmates each day.  Ortiz says that cooking became his passion and ticket to employment if and when he would ever be released.

“Still today, I still [have] 18 years left, but the president released me,” Ortiz says.

Ortiz was granted clemency by former President Barack Obama as part of an ongoing effort to release prisoners with disproportionately harsh sentences.

Ortiz was released from prison in December 2016. That same month he enrolled in the New Jersey Reentry Corporation’s (NJRC) program, which helps prepare former inmates for life outside of prison. The program is chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevy.

"I’m blessed with the opportunity to watch Candido transform his life,” McGreevy says.

Ortiz was able to get a job as a cook and worked hard enough to become a new business owner.

“For so many of our clients they don't have an identification. They can't get an apartment, they can't get a job, they can't even access general assistance,” McGreevy says. “We provide those services to help them lead a legal, responsible life.”

Ortiz says that he wrote a thank you letter to President Obama after becoming a free man – a letter that President Obama responded to.

sorry to interrupt
your first 20 are free
Access to News 12 is free for Optimum, Comcast®, Spectrum Networks® and Service ElectricSM customers.
Please enjoy 20 complimentary views of articles, photos, and videos during the next 30 days.
you have reached your 20 view limit
Access to News 12 is free for Optimum, Comcast®, Spectrum Networks® and Service ElectricSM customers.
Please login or create an account to continue enjoying News12.
Our sign-up page is undergoing maintenance and is not currently available. However, you will be given direct access to news12.com while we complete our upgrade.
When we are back up and running you will be prompted at that time to complete your sign in. Until then, enjoy the local news, weather, traffic and more that's "as local as local news gets."