Ex-con who learned to cook in prison opens restaurant
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.