An early test of priorities awaits guests at Britain’s most exclusive restaurant. First, a sign saying: “STATE OF ALERT: heightened,” closely followed by a second that says: “SPECIAL OF THE DAY: beef bourguignon.”
If you are struggling to appreciate these statements simultaneously, this may not be the place for you. If, however, you are too busy wondering how the beef will be served to notice the sniffer dogs and barbed wire, then welcome to The Clink at Her Majesty’s Prison High Down.
Here on the outskirts of London, prisoners have been preparing gourmet meals for the public since May 2009. Big men with tattooed necks take orders for espresso and sing “Happy Birthday” to elderly ladies. The pastry chef, who is serving three years for robbery, makes a divine frangipane tart as part of his “Celebration of Raspberries.”
The menu is seasonal with a French accent. Diners might try the ham hock and minted pea terrine, a pleasing marriage of fresh flavours and vibrant pinks and greens. Or the trio of trout, each fillet on its own bed of buttery mash, accompanied by three piquant sauces. Customers rarely send food back—at least, jokes Al Crisci, the project’s founder, “not if they want to live.”
High Down is a category B lock-up, for prisoners who present all but the highest level of risk. Permission is required for each piece of equipment in The Clink; every knife and peeler has its own particular spot on a “shadowboard” at the kitchen entrance.
Privations and regulations abound for diners, too. All cutlery is plastic, all drinks non-alcoholic (though you can order a fermented fruit “soft brew,” a sort of virgin moonshine). The long hours of phone-cradling and soul-searching required to secure a table at Dabbous or The Fat Duck pale next to The Clink’s reservation procedure: members of the public can only visit if they are accompanied by someone who has been before or can provide references from a registered charity linked to the prison service.
It is equally difficult for the prisoners to get in. Every year, the programme receives hundreds of applications from correctional facilities across the south east for its 28 trainee posts at High Down. Offences vary, though favoured candidates usually have about 18 months to serve: enough time to learn. In return for good behaviour and 40 hours labour per week, trainees receive a credit equivalent of £14.50.
Prisoners have longed for catering skills before The Clink. In a 2003 survey of 12 jails, the Prison Reform Trust found it was the most popular course choice—a “top priority.” Today, supply is rapidly expanding to meet demand. Gordon Ramsay opened a Bad Boys’ Bakery at HMP Brixton last year. The Clink charity opened a second branch at HMP Cardiff in September and has plans for eight more within the next five years.
Prisoners hope to leave jail with qualifications that employers want. Unskilled labour—packing teabags, making bed sheets—will not prepare them for the job market; nor will a few GCSEs. But with a brace of certificates and GNVQs in a vocational course, prisoners stand a decent chance of employment. This is especially true of catering, a huge industry always looking for new talent.
As someone who has worked in professional kitchens, I must raise a scarred hand at this point. The culture can be macho—a hangover from Escoffier’s military-style “brigade” system. Bullying, violence and even drug use is not unusual—hardly the ideal environment for rehabilitation.
Any chef will tell you the stories. Raymond Blanc suffered a broken jaw when he suggested a head chef’s stock was too salty. Gordon Ramsay had a plate thrown in his face when he failed to cook the prawns in a ravioli dish medium rare.
“My ear was blocked with hot food, my face was burnt, and there was ravioli all over the place,” he wrote in his autobiography, Humble Pie. “I apologised, and started all over again.”
Not all restaurant environments are so harsh. Still, recent surveys by the Samaritans and the institute of psychiatry at King’s College London listed catering among the worst workplaces for bullying and stress respectively. Surely, before this profession can be a model for reform, it requires reform itself.
Speaking after the lunch service, Crisci waves these concerns away. Employers are carefully screened and The Clink maintains weekly contact with former trainees for two years to ensure they are not slipping into old habits, or new ones. Early results are promising. Of the 20 graduates of the scheme in 2012, all are already in employment in the hospitality industry except for one who has re-offended, compared to a national re-offence rate of around 50 per cent.
Crisci describes his own approach as “zero tolerance.” Any stealing, lateness or rudeness results in dismissal.
“I’m not going to set anyone up to fail,” he adds as the waiters clear the table. “They have to be ready to work.”
The young prisoner removing our plastic cutlery agrees.
“I look forward to it,” he says confidently. “I’m a fighter.”