A Formerly Incarcerated Construction Worker Finds Freedom in the Kitchen

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a man in plain street clothes prepares a rib sandwich in his apartment kitchen.
Jonathan Davis prepares a MacArthur Rib sandwich at his home in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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very weekday, Jonathan Davis wakes up at 6am and heads into the yawn of morning light in his construction boots. As a full-time employee of WBE Traffic Control, he operates all over the East Bay, establishing safe zones for workers to repair power lines. It’s a systematized job, filled with rigid procedures, rules, and protocols that he and his coworkers abide by to maintain public safety.

Around 5pm he returns home to a three-year-old daughter who recently started preschool, prepares dinner, watches The Boys, then repeats his regiment the following day. It’s a churning livelihood that he embraces—even on Saturdays—in order to make ends meet, a prototypically American dedication to a grind that usually denies any form of extracurricular joy. The job isn’t glamorous, he tells me, but he’s grateful for it.

That’s because working in construction provides the backbone of income that allows Davis to do what he actually loves the most: cooking for others. On Sundays, he busts out his favorite recipes and vends food from his home, using social media and word-of-mouth to feed his community, friends and neighbors around Oakland and beyond.

“Cooking is like an artistic outlet for me,” says Davis, age 41. “I get to create things and I get to share that with my friends and family. When something doesn’t taste right, I get to improve it and make it better.”

For years, Davis has been perfecting his favorite dishes. A proud Oaklander, he says he grew up with a deep appreciation of the Bay Area’s tapestry of Asian and Latinx flavors—a cultural richness that gave him the confidence to experiment with the soul food ingredients he and his family grew up eating, including shrimp and grits, salmon and fried chicken.

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But he’s known for his sandwiches—chopped cheese like you’d find in a Harlem bodega and whimsical creations like the “MacArthur Rib,” a play on the McDonald’s classic. The sandos have earned him a reputation around The Town and helped fuel a burgeoning catering business. They also inspired the chef’s nickname: JD the Sandman.

Yet, it wasn’t a culinary institute where Davis got his game from. And it wasn’t a Michelin-star restaurant that taught him the importance of fresh, diverse ingredients and food’s ability to connect people. It was elsewhere: behind the walls of the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon.

Cooking from Scratch Inside a Federal Correctional Institution

Prison is a reality that many Californians know very little about. For those who haven’t had first-hand experience, it’s often a figment of imagination largely based on movies and television shows, where violence is typically the primary focus. Most people know even less about what happens when a person re-enters society after serving their time. Occasionally, an investigative project like “Facing Life” (which KQED staff writer Pendarvis Harshaw co-authored) can illuminate the complexities of life after incarceration. Otherwise, it’s a taboo and usually avoided subject.

Davis was no different in the way he saw prison as something intangible in his own day-to-day life. A middle-class son of college graduates, he says his own incarceration is something he felt ashamed of, particularly as a Black man.

“I invalidated my parent’s efforts, especially knowing the narratives of Black families,” Davis admits. “They were involved in our lives. My parents did all this work for us, and I still ended up in prison.”

Jonathan Davis looks out from the balcony of his apartment next to the freeway
Jonathan Davis stands on the deck at his apartment. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A former educational nonprofit employee in Oakland, Davis never thought he’d end up behind bars. In late 2010, he lost his job due to a disagreement with the principal after a student was expelled. In Davis’s telling of it, the incident had to do with race—he was pushing back in defense of Black students. After losing his job, Davis started to hang out with a crowd of people who introduced him to “scamming.” In that moment of financial need, he saw it as a quick way to turn a profit. In his eyes, he was hustling a governmental system rather than taking from individuals. But the scheme came crashing down in 2013 when the IRS raided his home, guns drawn.

“I was a halfway criminal and didn’t cross my t’s or dot my i’s,” he says. “At that point in life, my faith in myself was weaker.”

Davis faced up to 20 years in prison, but was ultimately sentenced to 30 months. He wound up serving 18 of those months at federal institutions in Nevada and Oregon. As soon as he was convicted, he accepted his role in his wrongdoing and decided to move forward with his life by facing the consequences of his actions.

While imprisoned from 2014 to 2016, Davis’s good behavior landed him in a low-security environment, where he was given certain privileges. He joined a gardening program, frequently read about cooking and met people like Kasey Anderson, a Portland-based songwriter.

Despite a largely solitary prison experience, Davis discovered that food was a way for him to connect with others and represent his heritage. He began to cook for himself and his blockmates, including Anderson, who recognized his skills.

“It’s tough to know who’s a good cook when you’re inside,” Anderson continues. “Everyone’s all working with the same ingredients from commissary. You can see who is innovative and using flavors in ways others aren’t. JD would get creative with his food, and when he had a chance to work with [more ingredients], he could really express himself creatively through food. It’s cool to me that it became something for him that can exist outside. A lot of people do things inside to get by, but then go out and do what they need to go paycheck to paycheck. He isn’t limiting himself in that sense.”

Davis explains how, at times, he had to get extra creative with the limited ingredients and lack of traditional cooking equipment available to him in prison.

“There was a sweat lodge, and we cooked a piece of pork in there [one time],” he recalls. “[Another time] we made pizzas with tortillas and barbecue sauce. That was my idea. During my time, I just made friends with the kitchen guys, and that helped to keep my sanity.”

Peanut butter was one of the most popular, versatile ingredients in prison—Davis recalls drawing inspiration from a peanut butter stew he’d once seen a Cameroonian immigrant whip up in his neighborhood, years prior. 

Despite having almost no experience working inside a formal restaurant—though he’d once bartended at Kincaid’s in Jack London—Davis was naturally drawn to the freedom the kitchen provided. In an environment where authority and separation is enforced by armed guards and selfhood is under vigilant regulation, cooking for himself and his peers became a source of restorative connection. 

two guests holding plates of shrimps and grits in an apartment kitchen
Two guests enjoying grits and shrimp prepared by Davis in his home. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

After being released, Davis was unable to get hired back into the nonprofit world. That’s when he started working in construction—since, as Davis puts it, nonprofits “prefer to hire non convicts.” He maintained his obsession with cooking, though, and applied a sense of redemption towards his Sunday cooking routine.

“Food for me became about honoring my family,” he says. “About giving back whatever I could.”

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Davis joined Instagram and noticed an opportunity to share his food with a wider audience. He started by cooking dinner for family, friends and neighbors, who encouraged him to expand his menu and sell his dishes. Inspired by their suggestions and the success of other homegrown, independent food entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, Davis rolled up his sleeves and began to mess around more seriously with his side hustle. With each praised meal, he gained confidence, eventually introducing his first certified hit: the MacArthur Rib Sandwich.

A play on McDonald’s famously elusive McRib, Davis added his own touches by roasting “real meat” and incorporating better ingredients to deliver what would become a banger for his growing base of returning customers. He followed that up with an array of other in-demand sandwiches, including a cast-iron seared and baked salmon (Cajun spices, arugula, dill relish, mayo) and New York bodega-style chopped cheese (ground beef, American deli cheese, chopped tomatoes, mayo and ketchup mix, sweet jalapeño)

Davis says the pandemic’s slowdown gave him an opportunity to reconnect with how much food means to him. Since then, he’s been sharing edible comfort with his folks.

“The way I’m doing this now, I can be independent,” he says. “This cooking allows me to do something I want and I’m grateful for that. It’s a release.”

Catering for the Public

Markesha Brooks is a lifelong Oakland resident who works as the head chef at Grand Lake Gardens. In her spare time, she runs her catering business, MB Soul, serving up fire plates of soul food at softball games, Southland Mall and Lake Merritt.

After meeting Davis over a decade ago, the two friends remained in touch. When he returned to Oakland on probation and eventually started his series of informal food events, he and Brooks decided to work together to leverage their mutual interest in cooking. 

“He’s a foodie, I’m a foodie. We’ve actually grown really close around food,” says Brooks. “He likes to pick restaurants in different cities. We go have specific dishes that those restaurants are known for. He’s eager to learn.”

With 18 years of experience, Brooks has been an ideal “coach” for Davis, critiquing his methods and offering advice on how to make adjustments. Currently, she assists Davis as a de facto sous chef whenever Davis is hired for large functions. Though he started out selling sandwiches exclusively out of his Lower Dimond apartment off MacArthur Boulevard, Davis’s business has since expanded—occasionally taking him out to Fairfield, Vallejo and even Sacramento. Bringing Brooks into the mix has allowed him to offer a more robust range of services. 

In the past six months, he has been hired to privately cater multiple events, including weddings and large birthday parties of more than 60 people. Brooks helps him steer the high pace of food service by handling meal prep, frying and plating, while Davis does the cooking and managing.

“He takes direction extremely well, and he knows how to take constructive criticism from me,” Brooks says about working with “Chef Jonathan,” as she calls him. “He’s creative and he has his vision. Lots of times in the kitchen, people think they can cook at home for a few people, but it’s different when you cook for the public. He’s really good at it though. He wants to get to that next level. I’m proud of his growth. I see it.” 

a rib sandwich cut into fourths on a cutting board
The MacArthur Rib sandwich is an ode to MacArthur Boulevard, where Davis lives. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Together, the Oakland duo is serving their community while having fun and playing to their strengths. Crowd favorites like Davis’s panko-and-eggs battered grits—which are deep fried for a crispy golden outer layer, doused in a spicy tomato-based sauce then topped off with shrimp—have resulted in them getting hired for Mardi Gras-themed parties and Southern-style cookouts all over the Bay.

Navigating Forward, New Recipes

According to recent research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 60% of formerly incarcerated Americans are unemployed. And even for those who have secured jobs, the data shows higher rates of turnover and rehiring. These trends reveal a “labor market injustice” and point to a harsh truth: Once you’ve been marked by the carceral system, it’s hard to get back on your feet. Discarding former inmates as “second-class citizens” when they re-enter society, the ravages of the prison industrial complex are undeniable. This is especially true for Black Americans, who—due to a variety of systemic, historical factors—make up a disproportionate amount of the incarcerated population in this country.

“The probation shit is rough, and filling out forms for jobs as a felon is rough,” says Davis. “It’s not only related to Blackness, but also class and not having enough money for legal help.”

The barriers preventing Davis—and many other formerly incarcerated folks—from being hired to work desirable positions are numerously stacked. The stigma around incarceration can be debilitating, offering no room for mistakes or missteps. In the Bay Area food scene, specifically, there are a handful of organizations that support aspiring foodmakers who were once incarcerated—such as Farming Hope in San Francisco—but these are few and far between. 

Rather than trying to navigate these difficult institutional pathways, Davis recognized the most direct road to success in the kitchen was to take initiative and do it for himself.

“I want to express what I want in the kitchen,” says Davis. “I’ve bartended at Kincaid’s. The guys back there are cooking, but their dream isn’t to make 57 crab dips per day. It’s conformity. You don’t have much control and there’s a lot of monetary pressure. The guy who makes turkey legs might not want to make turkey legs. This way, I can at least have my independence.”

For now, food is a side gig for Davis, but eventually, if an opportunity presents itself, he would love to do it full-time. Until then, customers can reach him via text or DM. He’s always ready to slang a batch of sandwiches or pull up for an event.

Jonathan Davis holds a freshly prepared fried chicken sandwich in his hands
Davis offers his fried chicken sandwich. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When I visited him with a small group of friends at his Oakland apartment, he hosted us with a sense of visible pride and passion for his cooking. We were in his living room, seated at his table, eating his homemade food. It’s unlike any experience I’ve had with a chef—an intimate level of trust and connection, built on the freedom of being able to move around someone’s space once invited. It became evident that his gratitude for ordinary decision making and simplicity are essential ingredients in his life.

From a rotating panoply of freshly-made sandwiches, homestyle french fries, and of course, his famous grits and shrimp, we were fed like Bay Area royalty. The fried chicken sandwich, which was accompanied by arugula, tomatoes and jalapeños on a sweet brioche bun, had a beautiful, understated crispness that exemplifies Davis’s well-executed takes on simple favorites. His love for local references—like the notorious MacArthur Rib, which uses country pork rib, Everett and Jones BBQ sauce, onions and pickles—also speak to Davis’s playfulness, adding a layer of appreciation to each flavorful bite.

It reminds me how my favorite chefs don’t measure their worth with abstract fine dining concepts or stylized presentations. Instead, they are focused on plating nourishment in the form of self care and community preservation. And sometimes, that’s shaped like a sandwich.

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JD the Sandman is available for private orders and limited catering services via Instagram.