Fil-Am chef Johneric Concordia cooks for prisoners in Indonesia’s notorious Cipinang Prison in new show ‘Prison Food’

Johneric Concordia in Cipinang Penitentiary Institution in Jakarta. Photo: Discovery Channel
Johneric Concordia in Cipinang Penitentiary Institution in Jakarta. Photo: Discovery Channel

In the new Discovery Channel show Prison Food, chef Johneric Concordia leaves behind his Los Angeles restaurant to spend a week inside prisons in Palawan, Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia.

It’s the kind of documentary series that puts its host in a fish-out-of-water situation — and in this case, the Filipino-American chef goes to these prisons to help inmates prepare food while listening to their stories about what it is like to live behind bars.

Last week, Coconuts Manila and other media outlets spoke with Concordia via phone interview. The chef talked about how shooting went in Cipinang Penitentiary Institution in Jakarta and Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm in Palawan.

Cipinang is a controversial prison whose administrators have a history of torturing its prisoners, according to Amnesty International. Iwahig meanwhile, is an experimental prison situated in a farm where some inmates are given the freedom to cultivate their own land or engage in other forms of livelihood.

Concordia, who owns a restaurant in LA called The Park’s Finest, said he was convinced by director-producer Aditya Thayi to do the series after the latter read his profile in a newspaper. Thayi was intrigued about Concordia, who grew up in Historic Filipinotown, a neighborhood in LA that was once known for being a bit rough.

The chef said the show’s concept was hard to resist, and so he agreed to do it.

Concordia and the show’s producers faced a number of restrictions while preparing dishes in the prisons.

“In Iwahig, one restriction was there was no supply of gas or propane, so inmates had to go down to the river to collect bamboo and cure it for five days to make sure there was something to cook with,” he said.

“Also in both facilities, each prisoner is allocated US$1 a day, that’s 33 cents a meal. I had to stick to that budget and supplement it with foods grown by the inmates in the facility.”

Prisoners in Cipinang Penitentiary Institution. Photo: Discovery Channel
Prisoners in Cipinang Penitentiary Institution. Photo: Discovery Channel

Even with these obstacles, however, the experience proved to be fulfilling.

Through his interactions with inmates, Concordia gained an understanding of how food affects a person’s psyche. He said that for the Filipino and Indonesian prisoners, eating was “one of the most freeing things in the world, [it gave them the freedom] to be human.”

“Certain dishes and recipes bring back memories of times when they were young and innocent,” Concordia explained. “It brought them to times when they were with their families. And what I learned about these environments, especially for those who cook for their fellow inmates, it’s one of those things that make you feel good about yourself. They (the other prisoners) look forward to seeing the cooks three times a day.”

Prison food is never the best, but Filipino inmates in Iwahig made things better by growing their own produce on the farm. “Iwahig had fresh vegetables, and they had a chicken supply once a week so we could make chicken soup,” Concordia said.

In Cipinang, which Concordia said housed around 4,000 prisoners at the time of shooting, the chef spent 16 hours cooking three meals daily, amounting to 12,000 meals a day.

Concordia said his time in Cipinang allowed him to rely on sambal to go on different types of dishes due to Indonesians’ affinity for the chili paste. Aside from sambal, tempeh is also a staple among prisoners.

“As far as protein is concerned tempeh was the way to go. Tempeh is really vegetarian Spam, you can pair it with rice and all kinds of dishes in place of meat,” he said.

The experience also opened Concordia’s eyes to how fantastic Indonesian and Filipino food could be.

“Both Indonesian and Filipino food is delicious,” he said.

“People have this impression that it may not be as nice as European food because it isn’t as expensive, but when you see how hard people work to make the food that carries their families’ heritage and brings comfort to an entire population, we should really value all the different food cuisines around the world.”

This story was adapted from our sister site Coconuts Manila

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