Former head of county’s prison food service stirs up tasty memoir

“Jail House Cuisine: From the Right Side of the Bars” is a compilation of recipes and recollections by local author Louise Mathews.
( / Courtesy photo)

For more than two decades, Louise Mathews served some of her tastiest dishes to those behind bars. Now retired, the local author is sharing some of the tricks of her trade in her new book, “Jail House Cuisine: From the Right Side of the Bars.”

Mathews is scheduled to read and sign copies of her book June 3 at the Del Mar Library.

“I wanted to write it all down so that folks know what we’re doing in San Diego County,” said Mathews, who retired as chief of food services for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department in 2007.

As chief of food services, Mathews was responsible for the department’s food and nutrition services.

With help from about 150 employees and 600 to 700 inmates, Mathews served about 8,000 inmates and staff members each day.

Some had dietary restrictions. Others had religious restrictions. All had to be fed on a government budget with a diet that followed strict state regulations.

Published in January, Mathews’ book details her experience, from her first day on the job to her last. It also features some of her famous recipes, from Cream Of Broccoli Soup to Ugly Duckling Cake.

“It’s a very unique book; there’s nothing like it out there,” said Mathews, who lives in Santee. “And the recipes are so good. I didn’t put anything in here that wasn’t exceptional.”

Originally from Texas, Mathews has more than 42 years of food service management experience, 21 of which she served with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

When her husband retired from the U.S. Navy in 1984, the couple settled in San Diego County. Soon after, Mathews looked for a job that would allow her to spend more time with her husband, a disabled veteran, yet also earn more money.

She eventually came across an ad for a food services position with the county and decided to apply.

After an eight-month application process — which included a background check, polygraph test, physical and mental health exams, and individual and panel interviews — Mathews got the job. She started as chief of food services in September 1986, a position she would hold for 21 years.

Mathews recalled telling her prospective employers not to hire her unless they wanted good food.

“I can’t do anything other than that,” she said.

Knowing that many prison riots are food-related, Mathews quickly decided the department needed to be overhauled. She needed to create new recipes, update the menu, hire and train kitchen staff, and ultimately change the way the department purchased and prepared food.

“It was a mess,” she said.

As the daughter of a chef, Mathews grew up spending time in restaurant kitchens. She knew what did and did not work, and immediately, she knew San Diego County Sheriff’s Department needed a centralized cooking center to serve all its facilities.

Mathews championed such a center, and in 1991, the department opened the Central Food Production Center, a 38,000-square-foot facility next to the East Mesa Detention Facility in Otay Mesa.

“I didn’t know what a humongous thing that was until way after it was done,” she said.

“From that point on, there were no problems, no lawsuits, no riots, for the next 17 years,” she added. “It was just fabulous food.”

Mathews used cook-chill technology to make more than 40,000 meals five days a week for the county’s jails, juvenile facilities and satellite school programs. Cook-chill is the process of cooking meals until they are almost done and then chilling and storing them.

This cooking method ensures consistency and quality in many chain restaurants, including Coco’s Bakery and Mimi’s Café, Mathews explained.

“It’s low-cost, high-quality food,” she said.

Over her career with the department, Mathews won the International Food Service Manufacturers’ Association’s Silver Plate, among other awards, for her creation and management of the center. She also received an honorary doctorate of food services from the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers.

Mathews also consulted with other food service managers across the country and around the world, demonstrating how they could also use the cook-chill method to run an efficient and economical facility.

“People in San Diego should see what we’re doing — we are actually doing something tremendous,” Mathews said. “The production center is still running. Twenty-five years later, it’s still doing clean, sanitary and cost-effective food.”

“Jail House Cuisine” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Outskirts Press.

Mathews will read and sign copies of her book during Del Mar Library’s Local Author Showcase series at 6:30 p.m. June 3. The Del Mar Library is at 1309 Camino del Mar. Call 858-755-1666 or visit