Manila prisoners draw knives for "Iron Bar Chef"

MANILA, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Convicted murderers and rapists in the Philippines faced off against each other in a prison battle using knives, but also aprons, hats, pots and pans.

Enter “Iron Bar Chef,” the latest recreational effort at the largest prison in the Philippines -- part of a broader programme that officials say has vastly helped tame the mood of the jail’s restive inmates.

Inspired by reality TV cooking show “Iron Chef,” the version at Manila’s New Bilibid Prison pitted six teams against each other, tasking them to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert in 60 minutes.

Each three-man team was given a box of ingredients including meat, fish, vegetables and fruits. When the clock started, the inmates began frantically chopping, frying and steaming.

“This is my passion, that’s why I was really interested in doing this,” said Bienvendio Diaz, who worked as a cook and caterer before receiving a 27-year-sentence for fraud.

The January 7 showdown at the prison, which has 12,000 inmates in maximum security alone, was just the latest venture in a wide-ranging rehabilitation program that aims not only to reform inmates but also to cultivate their skills and prepare them for a possible return to the work force.

“Our ultimate goal is for the inmates to be productive while in prison,” said Chief Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf.

“That’s what we want to give them. So that when the time for their freedom comes, they can be of benefit to society.”

The densely populated prison has seen its share of gang violence and drug use, but Schwarzkopf said the environment has vastly changed due to a well-rounded reform program.

Inmates at New Bilibid prison get to paint, create handicrafts, play tennis, attend church, and now exercise their gourmet talents.

Convicted for crimes ranging from murder and rape to drug peddling and illegal recruitment, the inmates are serving sentences of a few years to life imprisonment. The latest prison population figures are unavailable, but estimated around 17,000.

No strangers to the kitchen, most of the cookoff participants had worked in restaurants and catering businesses before entering prison, and were glad to put their kitchen skills to use.

Maximo Delmo, who worked as a cook in Japan and as chief steward of a cargo ship, is serving multiple life sentences for murder. He hopes his time can be reduced for good behavior.

“Even if we’re here inside, we can use our skills and prepare ourselves. Maybe, if no one will give us jobs, we can open up our own business,” he said.

The event also aimed to encourage camaraderie between rival gangs. Other inmates watched the cookoff, and even got to taste the finished products.

After closely watched judging, Delmo’s team tied with Diaz’s for first place. They wowed judges with dishes like roast beef in marinara sauce, squash nuggets with fresh fruits, and Chinese-style steamed tilapia.

One of the judges, executive chef Mark Crisologo of All Seasons Resort in Katherine, Australia, was impressed.

“I was very surprised with the dishes that they created, with the limited time and the limited resources,” he said.

The contestants were delighted with the day, both with their gourmet creations and cash prizes. The top winning team received 15,000 pesos ($340) while runners-up got 5,000 pesos.

But the best rewards were intangible.

“This is a big deal, it helps and encourages our fellow inmates who have lost hope,” said Rommel Chua, a former restaurant cook serving a three-year sentence for illegally recruiting workers for overseas jobs.

"Even if you're behind bars, you can still do what you want to do." here

Editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato