‘His time wasn’t wasted on me’
TC Mae’s chef reflects on education received in prison
In the early 2000s, Chef Ira Shivers wasn’t crafting specialty burgers and cooking signature breakfast foods in the kitchen at TC Mae’s Family Diner.
Shivers, of Fort Dodge, was serving time in federal prison.
“I sold drugs, got indicted, and went to prison,” Shivers said.
But while behind bars, Shivers was presented with an opportunity.
“There was a program being offered, out of 2,400 inmates, only nine people were going to get chosen and it was for the culinary arts program,” Shivers said. “God saw fit to choose me as one. I took it and I ran with it. I educated myself.”
He served two years at Leavenworth United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, beginning in 2001. He served five years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wisconsin.
While incarcerated, Shivers earned his GED and completed an 18-month program in culinary arts through the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo and Fox Valley, a technical college.
Through a memorable instructor named Gary Zastrow, Shivers learned to make the most of the ingredients he was provided.
“He sharpened my skills and elevated it as far as me knowing how to prepare a cheap meal, but it could be featured in a Las Vegas casino restaurant,” Shivers said. “I might have paid $4 to prepare this meal, but it’s going to run 40 something dollars.”
When asked who his dream dinner guest would be, he answered Zastrow.
“I want to show him his time wasn’t wasted on me,” Shivers said. “Because a lot of guys use different programs in prison to pass their time. I used my time to educate myself and show Mr. Zastrow his time wasn’t wasted, and not only did I come out in the real world and continue to better myself, but I took the trade that he helped hone and I utilized it in the real world.”
Shivers is a lead chef at TC Mae’s. His wife, Jenny Shivers, and son, Dylan Vodraska, own the restaurant, which has been located at 1010 First Ave. S. for six-and-a-half years.
The opportunity for Shivers to earn an education while serving a prison sentence is the same type of opportunity being afforded to inmates at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City through a program between the Department of Corrections and Iowa Central Community College.
The pilot program, which started about three years ago, offers Pell Grants to prison inmates.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, said recently that educating inmates is “the right thing to do from a public safety perspective.”
Reynolds said former prisoners who have the skills to get a job are less likely to return to a life of crime. The Iowa Central program was mentioned in her Condition of the State address.
Shivers’ advice to inmates is to make the most of their time.
“If you go to prison and you don’t have a GED or a high school diploma, get your GED while you are in prison,” he said. “Show that you are really committed to changing your life, that you really want an education.”
He added, “Start where you are at. You have to crawl before you can walk.”
Shivers is happy to have found his calling.
“I did my time, came out and knew that wasn’t the life for me,” Shivers said. “I had two choices, I could do the right thing or the wrong thing.”
Although Shivers advanced his culinary skills in prison, he started cooking when he was 10 years old.
“I am a momma’s boy, and whenever my mother was in the kitchen, I would follow her around and watch to see what she was doing,” Shivers said. “Just thinking about all the different dishes she created, throughout me growing up and seeing her interact with the food and the people she was cooking for, something just came over me and that’s what I wanted to do. I want to cook food like my mother’s food and I never thought I would be as passionate about it as I am now, thinking about it then. But I wouldn’t change a thing. I love it.”
Shivers is a native of Fort Dodge, but moved back and forth from Iowa to Alabama.
“My parents were ministers,” Shivers said. “My dad was a popular pastor in his time before his passing. He would pastor a lot of churches in Iowa and in Alabama. I was the oldest at the time and I had two other siblings under me, and it was just a back and forth trip. We lived in Iowa or Fort Dodge for a year and then we would get called to Alabama and we would go back to Alabama for however long, just back and forth, back and forth.”
He’s incorporated some of the southern cuisine at the restaurant.
The Bama Breakfast is one popular item on the menu.
“Growing up in Alabama, there was a certain item that was always made on a daily basis, which is grits,” Shivers said. “Every day, no matter where you went — friend’s house, cousin’s house. You went into their kitchen you were going to see a pot of grits on the stove.”
He added, “And so having that, the grits and then the breakfast sausage that comes from Alabama, which is called conecuh, it’s a really good breakfast sausage and I thought it would do well up here because not as many people have tasted that kind of sausage unless they grew up in the south. So I made arrangements to have that meat shipped here on a routine basis and the customers love it.”
Grits, which is a type of food made from corn and ground into a coarse meal, was one of the first foods he prepared growing up. It was also one of the first times he received feedback on what he had prepared.
“Grits was one of the first things I actually cooked for a friend’s father and got critiqued by him,” Shivers said. “That was something that had never happened. I got critiqued. But I am glad that he did that because I found out that I was cooking grits wrong. So with him saying that, and him critiquing me, it made me change the whole way I approached a certain dish. There’s a lot of dishes growing up that I would cook. Some that I still try to master today. There’s some things my mom could cook and she was just a pro at it. I am still learning.”
One of the restaurant’s signature items is the ultimate breakfast sandwich, which Shivers created.
“That’s probably the number one favorite of our customers,” Shivers said. “It’s all the breakfast items in one. You have a piece of toast on the bottom, a bed of hash browns, two sausage patties, two strips of bacon, two eggs your choice, two slices of cheese, topped with sausage gravy, and top that with the other piece of toast.”
Burgers are another food item Shivers prides himself on.
The Paul Lara and Fort Dodge Farmboy are two of the top selling burgers. The Paul Lara has two beef patties, cheese, bacon, smoked brat, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and secret sauce. The Fort Dodge Farmboy has a beef patty, tenderloin, American and Swiss cheese, egg, bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and Barnyard sauce.
The Dodger Burger is meat heavy. That features a beef patty, tenderloin, breaded chicken patty, bacon, three cheeses, “that” sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and jalapeno.
Shivers makes his own seasoning for all of the burgers. When creating one, he starts with a list of ingredients he would like to see on them.
“I make a list of the things I would like to have or see or eat on a burger,” he said. “I would just come down here and I would look at what I had and see what this would taste like on this. Challenge myself to do a burger that had never been done. I just like a challenge. You throw anything at me and I’ll make a good dish out of it.”
Business has been strong at the diner, and this past spring, a food truck was added to the mix.
“It has been going good,” Shivers said. “We have been contacted by three or four people. My wife handles a lot of that. The Webster County Fair, the Humboldt County Fair, figure 8 races. It’s been a real good thing.”
When the weather warms up, the truck will serve 22 different flavors of soft serve ice cream next to the restaurant. It will also be available for special events.
“Winter is too cold,” he said. “I tried in October, but it was just too cold. As soon as it gets warm enough, it will be out there.”
Shivers said he feels blessed to be able to serve the customers in Fort Dodge.
“When you come in that door, I want you to feel like family,” he said. “When you leave out that door, I want you to feel like family and know in your heart that I’m coming back. I like the atmosphere, the service, the food. I felt like family when I was in there so I want to bring my friends and my family to show them there is a spot maybe they haven’t been to. I love to see the smiles on my customers’ face and the stories they tell.”
Five questions for the chef
What was the first meal you ever prepared?
Dream dinner guest?
Gary Zastrow, culinary arts instructor
Last song or artist you listened to?
Goal for 2019?
Bring my immediate family closer together