How a former prison cook became one of the country’s top pizza chefs
"‘The kitchen was always the place where I could survive in,’ said Mike carter, executive chef at Down North Pizza in Philadelphia
When Mike Carter was in prison, making pizza was his specialty. But he didn’t prepare classic pies.
He experimented with ingredients he could buy at the prison commissary, like ramen noodles and Cheez-It crackers for the crust, then barbecue sauce and pre-cooked sausage on top. He called it “jailhouse pizza.” With no fresh mozzarella, tomatoes or basil readily available at the penitentiary, he had to improvise. Getting his hands on an onion or a head of garlic was hard.
Still, he said, his recipes tasted pretty good.
“I had to get creative,” said Carter, 37, who spent a total of 12 years behind bars, beginning with a stint at the New Jersey Training School for Boys, a juvenile detention center, for armed robbery and home invasion. He was 16. In the years that followed, he was in and out of prison for various offenses.
Today, pizza is still Carter’s specialty — but rather than improvising it in prison, he’s crafting it as the executive chef of one of Philadelphia’s most popular restaurants, Down North Pizza. The eatery only employs formerly incarcerated people, many of whom struggle to find work once they’re released.
The Detroit-style square pies at Down North Pizza have been showered with accolades, including being listed recently in The Washington Post’s Best Pizza in America and the New York Times 2021 The Restaurant List, The 50 Places in America we’re most excited about right now.
The menu includes pizza with names like “No Betta Love” and “Yeah That’s Us” after Philadelphia hip-hop songs. The restaurant also serves non-pizza items like za’atar cauliflower wings and apple pie milkshakes.
For Carter, while the menu is important, it comes second to the restaurant’s mission of helping people who have been in prison get back on their feet. In the U.S., more than 44 percent of former inmates end up returning to prison within one year of their release.
“There’s a big stigma. They’ve been dehumanized for so long,” said Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, the founder of Down North Pizza, which also offers housing above the restaurant to employees, as well as pro bono legal services. “We focus on humanizing individuals, and allowing people to see that they should not be defined by a mistake they made.”
He said he hopes to reduce recidivism in the surrounding Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, and minimize the stigma associated with incarceration.
“The person is not the crime,” he said. “The crimes are sometimes based off of their socioeconomic circumstances, or the hand that they’ve been dealt. They’re not the monsters that people think they are.”
Employees like Carter, he said, embody the mission of the restaurant.
“He has evolved a lot from when he first came in,” Abdul-Hadi said. “I’m very proud.”
As a teen, Carter lived with his grandmother in West Philadelphia. She worked hard to put food on the table, he said, though he was mostly left to financially fend for himself.
“I’ve been out in the world earning my keep since I was 14,” Carter said, explaining that he was in “survival mode,” and when he had difficulty making money, he turned to crime.
After spending three years at the juvenile detention facility, he registered for the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, and worked at a catering company for a few months. From the time he was a child, Carter said, he had a strong culinary instinct. He always wanted to become a chef.
“My kitchen IQ was always above and beyond,” he said, noting that his cooking aptitude is embedded in his DNA. “My love for food developed in my family. My grandmother was always cooking. I was always in the kitchen beside her.”
She taught him how to make her famous yams, greens, stewed chicken and field peas.
Not long after leaving the juvenile detention center, Carter got into trouble again in 2006. He spent more than seven years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
While he was locked up, Carter worked in the kitchen, cooking three meals a day for thousands of inmates.
“Whatever was on the prison menu, I had to make,” he said, adding that typical meals included chili, Texas hash, pancakes, grits and spaghetti.
Although ingredients were limited, Carter spent time experimenting and honing his culinary skills. He also learned how to make meals for the masses, which later helped him in his career.
“The kitchen was always the place where I could survive in,” he said.
After he was released from the state prison in Graterford, Pa., in 2013, he enrolled in the culinary management program at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
“I was done with the streets,” he said, adding that he worked several restaurant jobs simultaneously.
Carter felt like his life was finally on the right track.
But then, in 2015, he was a passenger in his friend’s car when it was pulled over during a traffic stop. An officer found an unregistered handgun in the car, and Carter was charged with gun possession. He also violated his parole by failing to update his address after his home was damaged by a fire. He was locked up for another 27 months and spent $15,000 — which he had saved to open his own food truck — on legal fees. His case was dismissed, and he was released in 2017.
“That 27 months was the shortest time of me being incarcerated, but it was the hardest, because I had worked so hard to get to where I was at,” he said.
Carter started working again in various restaurants, including a pizza shop. A colleague introduced him to Abdul-Hadi in 2021, and he offered Carter a job at Down North Pizza.
“Mike just embraces the role, with no complaints,” said Abdul-Hadi, who started a nonprofit called Down North Foundation, which funds youth programs and other projects aimed at stopping recidivism.
Carter has been laser-focused on growing his culinary career and supporting his colleagues. He trains and mentors every cook that steps into Down North Pizza.
“I try to teach them everything I know,” he said.
In addition to being the executive chef of Down North Pizza, Carter launched his own side catering company. His story has been chronicled in various publications, including a 2021 piece in “Bon Apétit,” as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer and a recent feature in The Guardian. He is also working on a cookbook, which is set to be published in 2025.
This fall, Carter is teaching a culinary program at the Juvenile Justice Services Center in Philadelphia.
“His lived experience makes him the perfect role model for youth in detention, so they can see a way forward for them,” said Heather Leach, the director of farm and food education for Down North Foundation.
Leach co-instructs the class with Carter, and also leads a gardening program at the center — which yields fresh produce that the culinary students can cook with. “His enthusiasm about food is so contagious,” she said.
Carter hopes the program — and his life story — will leave a lasting impression on people.
“I want to leave my mark on this planet, and actually help the guys that have been through what I’ve been through and prevent as many kids as possible from going through it,” said Carter, who has a 5-month-old son, and an 8-year-old daughter. “We deserve a second chance. And if given a second chance, we are the hardest working.”
Although Carter’s path from prison cook to pizza aficionado had a lot of setbacks, he is optimistic about the future. Food and family, he said, will be at the forefront — as well as raising awareness about the challenges formerly incarcerated people face when they return to their communities.
“We are not our worst mistakes,” he said. “There is redemption for everybody.”