ENCINITAS — The weed of crime may bear bitter fruit but when Louise Mathews went to jail she found nothing but sweet success.
As chief of food services for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Mathews discovered the recipe for saving money while keeping 8,200 inmates fed and (mostly) happy three times a day.
Although challenging at times — male inmates were strip-searched in the kitchen on her first day — Mathews enjoyed her 21-year career.
“It was a fun job,” she said. “I had a blast.”
Originally from Texas but raised mostly in New York and New Jersey, Mathews grew up in the food service industry. Her father was a food service officer in the Army and later became a chef and restaurant owner.
“I started working in his kitchens when I was 14,” she said. “I did everything from the ground up — dishwasher, waitress, busing tables, you name it. I discovered I liked to manage.”
Although she studied English in college and planned to teach and write, Mathews stayed in food service. Her husband is a Navy veteran and the family moved frequently.
“I could always find work in a restaurant,” she said.
In addition to once owning a restaurant, Mathews worked at hotels, schools, hospitals and a pig butchering plant. When her husband retired and they settled in San Diego she was looking for a job that didn’t require her to work nights and weekends, a near impossibility in the restaurant industry.
“I saw an ad for chief of food services and it looked interesting,” she said. “The salary was good and the hours were good.”
Mathews said it took eight months to go through the interview and hiring process, which included a polygraph test and background check.
“I think they figured when I saw the kitchen I would run away,” she said. “It was dark and dirty. Guys were smoking. I felt sorry for the guys who had to eat food from there. But I figured I could do nothing but make it better. And I like a challenge.
“So I told them not to hire me if they didn’t want good food,” she added. “I also told them I would stay in budget and save them money. Seven weeks later they called me up and said, ‘We’d like good food.’”
She cleaned up the jail kitchen as best she could but eventually convinced the county to build a 45,000-square-foot facility in Otay Mesa, where she began using cook-chill technology.
The food is prepared there, then chilled and packaged so it can be reheated offsite.
“I got the government to give me money upfront by promising I would save them $1 million a year,” she said. “And I did. Everything is cooked by professionals correctly. It tastes good. It looks good and it’s all legally defensible.”
Mathews said if inmates get sick or are not receiving proper nutrition their families will sue the county. She also noted many outbreaks at jails are over food but there were few if any during her tenure and lawsuits became a thing of the past.
“San Diego should be proud of that accomplishment,” she said.
She also used recipes and prepared and served the food the way inmates would like it.
“I know how men eat,” she said. “They don’t like mystery food. Jail food is usually bland and in casseroles. Sometimes they may not like the main course but if you pair it with something good, they like it.”
Mathews said she would serve roast beef with a fruit cup for dessert. Chicken tetrazzini came with chocolate cake.
“I’d also tell them if they eat well they will be strong and healthy,” she said. “I told them no woman would want them if they weren’t strong and healthy.”
After her retirement in 2007 Mathews began working on a book to share her recipes, chronicle her career and thank her food service team, especially for helping her earn the International Diamond Award for the best correctional food and the Silver Plate for specialty food services.
“Jail House Cuisine: From the Right Side of the Bars” was published in January. It features dozens of recipes — from Miss Marie’s fried chicken and ugly duckling cake to alligator stew and awesome brownies — as well as funny and interesting stories.
Mathews will be at the Cardiff-by-the-Sea branch of the San Diego County Library, 2081 Newcastle Ave., beginning at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 17 for a 90-minute interactive presentation and book signing that includes refreshments and a guess-the-cookie contest.