A new year allows for second chances. For one Jersey City resident, it means beginning a brand new life after 27 years in jail. After being released from Federal Prison in 2016 by President Obama, Candido Ortiz is now giving back to his community through his love of cooking food.
I visited El Sabor Del Café, Candido’s brand new restaurant that opened just before the new year. Mr. Ortiz was candid in saying, “I spent almost 27 years - 26 years, 9 months and 17 days, behind bars, on day one, the first thing I did was go to the kitchen. It was work that I can do, the thing that I want to do is something that made me feel comfortable. And I like to cook!”
It was of all places, a prison kitchen, where Mr. Ortiz fine-tuned his cooking skills. There, he learned how to perfect regional dishes and expand is culinary repertoire.
He elaborated, “I like to keep my mind occupied. I don’t want to do the wrong thing because I know if I keep doing what I was doing in the street, its going to keep me there longer and my sentence was to be. The only one who can let me out was the President of the United States and God made that happen.”
Indeed he did. In 2016, President Obama granted Mr. Ortiz clemency after he had served nearly 27 years of his sentence for drug trafficking. In one short year, Candido Ortiz went from being a prison chef to owning his own restaurant. All thanks to the New Jersey Re-entry Corporation run by Former Governor Jim McGreevey.
Governor McGreevey suggests, “I believe in law and order but I also believe in common sense. People need to understand that keeping people locked up in prison has a cost of 55,000 dollars a year. So if you’re keeping someone locked up in prison for 20 years, that’s a million dollars of tax payers money, and we need to understand that this isn’t for free.”
Candido Ortiz was sentenced to 49 years and six months back in January 1990, but he believes that his dedication to cooking in prison is what led him to be released 18 years early.
The irony is that, “the same judge that sentenced me wrote a letter to Barack Obama, and he checked my case. He read my case and was able to see that my sentence was too harsh and that I deserve a second chance,” explained Mr. Ortiz.
Governor McGreevey prides himself on his decision. “In the space of a year, he went from costing the government 55000 dollars a year, to being reunified with his wife, to having a small business, to being a taxpayer, to giving back to the community, and now feeding persons in our program who have just come out of prison in jail. So look at that cost versus now what he’s doing.”
During his time in prison, Ortiz earned dozens of certifications and became the head chef in the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons, cooking for between 1,500 and 2,500 inmates at a time.
Just ask Governor McGreevey. “He loves to cook, he loves food, and you’ve got to try his chicken soup! The chicken soup is phenomenal!”
El Sabor del Café on Martin Luther King Blvd. in Jersey City offers Spanish, American, and international cuisine and offers a la carte, catering, and delivery options. However, this small business represents so much more.
“Whatever I took in the past, I am here now to give it back. I am showing the youngsters that when I was young I was not right. I could have spent half of my life in prison, believe me no one wants to do the time that I did. I just want them to learn from me that I come from prison after 27 years, and I try to do the right thing”
The location of El Sabor del Café was chosen by Mr. Ortiz because it is considered his home. He chose to lead by example and give back to his community. For the full story that aired on ‘Jersey Matters,” tune in at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWBarWK5B_0&t=4s