A recipe for rehabilitation

It is a radical idea to open a fine dining venue in a prison and to train inmates to prepare the food. But with another Clink restaurant soon to open at HMP Brixton, London, Jim Banks spoke to those involved about their passion for the project

In November 2013, construction work began on a new restaurant in Brixton, south London, which will offer a unique fine-dining experience to lovers of great food. In February 2014, it will open to the public, but only those willing to undergo security checks and eat with plastic cutlery should attempt to make a reservation.

The Clink in Brixton will be situated inside the old governor’s house in Brixton Prison, and it will be the third Clink restaurant, following the successful launch of similar operations at HMP High Down in Surrey and HMP Cardiff. The concept is the brainchild of Alberto Crisci, chef and creator of the Clink restaurant, and founder trustee of The Clink Charity. The charity’s main aim is to provide high-quality training to prison inmates in order to help with their rehabilitation by equipping them with valuable skills they can use to build a career after their release.

“In 2009, as the catering manager at HMP High Down, I recognised that many of the prisoners, working within the main kitchens of the prison, had real skill,” says Crisci. “This led to my idea of creating a restaurant where I would train promising chefs to a professional standard within a real working environment. The prisoners gain valuable skills and confidence, which helps them find employment and break the cycle of crime when they are released. Through the training we have reduced the reoffending rates of our graduates and changed both the public and potential employers’ perception of prisoners.”

Once the The Clink restaurant at HMP High Down was up and running, Crisci created The Clink Charity to aid the expansion of the rehabilitation project across the prison estate by driving funding activities, securing donations and sourcing employment opportunities for graduates after their release. Chris Moore was appointed as the charity’s chief executive in 2010.

“The project has been welcomed by the local community and has received great support from the FCSI and from catering equipment manufacturers, who have donated £100,000 in free equipment,” says Moore.

Designing for a unique dining experience

Many factors make Brixton prison an ideal site for a Clink restaurant. It is undergoing a regeneration project, so the timing was perfect, as the prison needed a partner to develop what was formerly the governor’s house – the Regency Roundhouse that dates back to 1819 – and repurpose it for rehabilitation projects. Alongside the 100-seat restaurant, the building will have rooms for business meetings and working lunches.

Another key factor is that Brixton now houses category C and D prisoners, so from a prison population of 800 some 160 will go out to work in local businesses. The Clink restaurant on-site will train 28 inmates at a time, who can work in the community under release on temporary licence (ROTL) rules.

In terms of the design, the Brixton project will follow the plan successfully implemented at the award- winning restaurant at HMP High Down.

“The idea was really well received and the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison Service were supportive of the project from the beginning,” remarks Crisci. “The governor of HMP High Down at this time was Peter Dawson and he was extremely influential in helping get the first Clink restaurant up and running. However, despite the positivity and support, I had great difficulty overcoming the issues surrounding the high-quality finishes in the restaurant itself. It was such a radical idea that had certainly never been seen within the prison estate, making it difficult to convince people that a fine dining restaurant needed to feel like one when you walked in and not a canteen.”

The nature of the building on the Brixton site presents its own challenges. “The biggest task is converting the existing kitchen in an old building that was mainly used as office space into something that has new equipment and the capacity to serve the restaurant,” says Tony Galvin FCSI, who is overseeing the refit of the kitchen. “We were lucky to get a lot of free or cut-price equipment from suppliers. I am surprised the government hasn’t funded such a good cause.”
“The kitchen has to be designed just like any other commercial kitchen and ithas to have the latest technology, including induction cooking equipment. Induction cooking is where the industry is heading, and chefs are over the moon with it. The one we have ordered has a slide control so you can move the pan across the element, which responds to where the pan is placed and adjusts the temperature. It is top of the range. At the moment I have placed the orders for equipment and the drawings are finalised, but already we have people who want to book to eat there,” Galvin adds.

The nature of the dining experience has some impact on the menu and on some operational aspects of the restaurant. For instance, no metal cutlery is allowed within the prison, so diners must use plastic cutlery. That means there can be nothing tough on the menu, so the emphasis is on slow-cooked dishes such as shoulder of lamb.

For Moore, it is vital to have a clear programme for designing the restaurant, delivering the training and supporting graduates. “We are applying our brand bible to the Brixton project, taking out the partitioning and bringing the building back to life,” he says. “It will be our biggest restaurant yet, but we know what end result we want and have learned from the two previous projects. We are effectively a training college and we have a clear programme we have honed over the last three years. It goes from security checks and clearing, through training and auditing, then to mentoring, which continues for up to 12 months after release.”

Planning ahead

The Clink restaurants have so far had a dramatic effect on the prisoners trained there, partly because the training is very demanding. Signing up is not an easy option. Nothing is brought in ready-made, everything is prepared fresh, and the standards are set high.

“Each prisoner working in either the kitchen or front of house at any Clink restaurant, has to go through a stringent process of interviews, testing and analysis. This is to ensure they are the right person for the position. We have a very strict policy in place – one strike and you’re out. We have to enforce this to ensure that those we have in training are there because they really want to learn and change their life for the better – there’s definitely no room for laziness,” says Crisci.

The criteria for trainers and mentors are equally demanding, and they must be people who are driven to help change the lives of others for the better. The menus are based on fresh, seasonal ingredients – sourced locally whenever possible, but trainers are teaching inmates about more than cooking. They not only focus on the importance of seasonality, sustainability and provenance when creating menus and preparing meals, but they also emphasise social skills and teamworking.

From a culinary and quality perspective, the requirements of a Clink restaurant are the same as for any other top-end restaurant, but the training on offer has a far bigger impact on the lives of the graduates. In 2011, The Clink restaurant at HMP High Down reduced the reoffending rate of prisoners in training to 12.5% one year after release, compared to a national average of over 30%.

“They grow in confidence, learn to work as part of a team and gain nationally recognised City & Guilds qualifications. This all helps them when it comes to finding employment when they are released. With the support of the Clink mentors, they have the motivation to turn their lives around and break the cycle of crime,” says Crisci.

The future is full of ambitious plans for Crisci and his colleagues. He wants to widen the scope of training to include specific skills such as baking, butchery and farming. He also wants to open seven more Clink restaurants over the next four years. Ten projects could result in 500 qualified graduates each year. That prospect ensures the team’s passion remains undimmed.

“This is the most rewarding job I have ever had,” says Moore. “We are empowering and educating people. We are challenging society’s view of what prisoners are, and the scope of the project is endless. Also, the catering industry needs talent and we provide it with some highly-trained individuals.

Jim Banks

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