Article by James Coldrey-Mobbs – a Coverpoint Consultant
Well my, how prison catering has changed over the years. Ok, so The Clink isn’t exactly prison catering, more catering within a prison, but the overall quality is not far from some of London’s top West End restaurants. The booking system may be a bit more complicated, Chris Moore, Chief Executive of the Charity explains to me, usually taking about 16 emails before clearance is granted and you may not be allowed your phone, wallet, cigarette lighter and even chewing gum inside, but believe me, it’s well worth a visit.
The Clink is located within the walls of HMP High Down prison, Surrey, and has been running for almost exactly 2 years now. It uses catering to train, teach and develop offenders to survive in the ‘outside’ world once they have completed their sentence. Chris explains over and over again throughout the day that the prisoners are trained and then more importantly supported once they leave the prison system. Chris has done a fantastic job linking up with suppliers, contract caterers and restaurant chains to find jobs for his students once they have left. The most important thing, he explains, is that when the prisoners complete their sentence, they do not re-offend. 63 prisoners have been trained in The Clink, 25 of whom have been released of which 4 were deported and 18 are still in contact and working today. Compare this to the national average for re-offenders (74% of prisoners re-offend in their first year only if they don’t have a job or accommodation) and the programme clearly speaks for itself.
So, onto the meal experience. We arrived at HMP High Down well in advance, as instructed, to go through the necessary security procedures, before we were lead across the prison yard into the actual restaurant. Now for those of you thinking it may be a shabby, run down, canteen looking restaurant, think again. The stunning exposed brickwork, high backed leather chairs (all made by prisoners) and expansive open kitchen all come together to create a true ‘Fine Dining’ atmosphere. We are greeted with our non-alcoholic bucks fizz whilst Chris and Vic Laws, The Clink Ambassador, talk us through the concept and details of the programme that they offer prisoners. They explain that competition is tough, with nearly 1,100 prisoners in HMP High Down, and a team of only around 20-25 on the programme at any time.
We were invited to our table for lunch, which I must admit I was thoroughly looking forward to as I had had no breakfast, and built up a large appetite (nothing new there though)!! We were served a light tomato consommé with home-made sourdough bread to start (the bread has to be sourdough as the prisoners are not allowed to use yeast as it can be used to make alcohol). The consommé was followed by ‘Deep fried crispy stilton quenelles with apple, pear and walnut salad.’ The deep fried crispy stilton was a delicious twist on this English salad, and added a real texture to the dish that can sometimes be all a bit soft and disappointing. For our main course we had partridge with wild mushrooms and redcurrant sauce, which was extremely well cooked, and highlighted cooking skills that even fully trained chefs would be proud off. For me though, the proof was in the pudding, and I thoroughly enjoyed tucking into my plum tart and fresh custard. The custard was creamy, and just the right sweetness and the plum tart was absolutely divine, with a warm fluffy sponge top, gooey plums and a delicious thin and buttery pastry case. The whole meal was washed down with ‘Soft Brew’, an infusion of English malted barley and hops, with added fruit juice and sparkling water, which looked identical to a crisp glass of beer (also not allowed for obvious reasons).
We were then escorted around the facilities to take a brief look into the kitchen, the conference room and introduced to Al Crisci, the Manager of the prison kitchens and founder Trustee of the Clink, before passing through the shop to buy Christmas puddings, Cranberry Sauce, mugs, pens, aprons and the lot, in true National Trust fashion. Chris, Al and Vic explain to us about how they have expanded the programme and how they plan to grow the concept in the future. The prison already has 6 poly tunnels, a glasshouse that grows 75% of all the vegetables and salad items on the menu and 10 beehives. The future plans are to open 3 more Clinks around the country, to develop a pop up Clink and in 2014 to open a high street Clink with sheltered accommodation for ex-offenders.
It has to be said though, it was not just the quality of the cooking and produce that surprised me, but the quality of the service far passed my expectations. It was obvious that throughout the service the waiters gained more and more confidence, were extremely polite and well trained and by the end were happy to fully engage in conversation with everyone. It really was a humbling experience to see how these guys, with the help of Chris, Vic, Al and his team, are turning around their life for the good.
I can only urge you to go and experience The Clink for yourself and to see first-hand how all this hand work really is changing people’s lives, and I can guarantee you this will be the best food you have ever eaten with plastic cutlery!