A Closer Look at the Documentary ‘Coldwater Kitchen’

‘Coldwater Kitchen’ follows a chef of a highly regarded culinary training program and his students who make their way back into society armed with culinary and life skills.
The official film poster for the feature-length documentary film Coldwater Kitchen, produced by the Detroit Free Press. // Poster Design by Brian McNamara

It started with a hand-written letter sent from a prisoner at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater.

It’s turned into a documentary highlighting a culinary program behind bars that co-director Mark Kurlyandchik, a former senior editor at Hour Detroit, has been working on since 2018. The documentary, Coldwater Kitchen, had its world premiere at Doc NYC last November, but local audiences will be able to see it as part of the Freep Film Festival’s lineup this month.

The letter was sent from Ernest Davis, who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole as a teenager for his involvement in a drug robbery gone wrong that ended in felony murder.

Davis was writing to Kurlyandchik, then the restaurant critic for the Detroit Free Press, not just as a prisoner but as a sous-chef, excited to highlight what he and others had been cooking up while incarcerated.

Davis was part of the renowned culinary program at Coldwater that chef Jimmy Lee Hill has been running for over 30 years. Hill was using the program to give inmates knife skills, life skills, and a sense of hope while they served their time in the level 2-security facility.

When Kurlyandchik visited for the first time, it was far from typical “prison food” on the plate.

“It was a wild-game feast,” Kurlyandchik says, with an array of offerings that could hold their own at any fine-dining restaurant in the state.

Duck confit salad wrapped in lettuce. Oven-roasted pheasant atop a Calvados-infused sweet potato puree. Slices of seared bison loin with deep purple mashed potatoes and carrot-ginger puree.

Sous-chef Ernest Davis (above) reached out to a Detroit Free Press restaurant critic about his experience in the culinary training prorgam at Coldwater. Now he’s featured in a film showing at the Freep Film Festival. // Photograph by Brian Kaufman

Kurlyandchik was blown away, realizing the story unfolding here deserved more than just a write-up in the paper.

“How am I having one of the best meals of my life inside a prison right now?” Kurlyandchik recalls thinking.

Coldwater Kitchen profiles chef Hill and three of his students — Davis, who was facing a life sentence; another student battling an opioid addiction; and a third returning to the city where he once dealt drugs.

Kurlyandchik’s team filmed inside Lakeland Correctional Facility over a period of about 18 months and followed some of their subjects outside prison walls as they navigated the difficult path of reentry.

“Most of us are touched by incarceration in some way, but yet we don’t get a real view into the system,” Kurlyandchik says. “When you get there and you get to know these people, there’s a lot of humanity that we’re not seeing. It’s very hard to change people for the better in an environment and a system that is designed to oppress and keep them down.”

Culinary programs like chef Hill’s, one of only a few in the country, are aiming to change that. And the documentary Coldwater Kitchen is telling a story of redemption through food and cooking that we don’t often get to see.

Coldwater will be shown on opening night of the Freep Film Festivial on April 26 at 7 p.m. at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA, 5200 John R. Street, Detroit

This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.