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.