Homemade's Lucy Hancock breaks into The Clink for lunch under lock and key
"I’m sitting in a restaurant in one of the posher suburbs of leafy Surrey. It’s lunchtime and the atmosphere is calm and genteel. Diners are tucking into their second course of the afternoon: duck breast with celeriac gratin. Amid the cheerful murmur and clinking china of the restaurant comes the occasional sound from the open kitchen where focused chefs in crisp white jackets are carefully arranging baby carrots onto large plates."
"A waiter in a smart waistcoat appears at my side, one hand behind his back. He seems a little nervous. 'Good afternoon, Madam,' he almost whispers. 'Can I interest you in a drink at all? Perhaps a glass of sparkling apple and elderflower?’
"‘No booze?' I think to myself, and then I remember where I am. Of course there's no booze. There's no booze because I’m sitting inside the heavily guarded concrete walls of a category B prison.
"My momentary confusion is certainly strong evidence that the proprietors of The Clink have succeeded in their mission to create a restaurant run by prisoners that actually feels like a fancy eatery.
"First launched in 2009, The Clink was the UK’s first restaurant initiative of its kind. Offering practical training in catering to prisoners approaching the end of their sentence, it was originally the brainchild of Alberto Crisci, catering manager at the prison. Its mission statement is “to reduce reoffending through training and rehabilitation of prisoners” leading up to, and following, their release.
"The restaurants are a sophisticated affair, serving nosh that legitimately competes in the fine dining arena. So much so that The Clink's Cardiff arm has even been voted the best restaurant in Cardiff beating a whopping 946 others.
"High Down, where I'm lunching today, is one of only two restaurants actually set within the walls of the prison. The lighting choice is a little moody but then that's hardly surprising – there aren’t any windows in this place. And instead of polished silver, we're dining with plastic cutlery. The well-spoken waiter might be delicately unfolding my napkin with aplomb, but there’s a good chance he’s committed a pretty unsavoury crime."
"As I was to learn the hard way, setting up a restaurant in a prison means enforcing a lot of rules, and these guys really aren’t messing about on the security front. I was asked to put all my worldly goods in a locker on arrival. Prisoners' identities are strictly concealed for everyone's protection. No photos of faces, no hushed conversations.
"Walking possession-less through the high fences and barbed walls of the prison, I feel pretty vulnerable as the doors slam behind me. On my way through the yard, a van full of newly convicted prisoners are brought in from the local crown court and I hear the doors clank behind them. This is a prison all right.
"But as the key turns in the iron gates of the restaurant entrance and I step over the threshold, the restaurant inside is strangely serene. I join proceedings as diners are just tucking into the day’s seasonal menu: a starter of delicious brussels sprout soup made from vegetables grown by prisoners in The Clink gardens, served with sourdough bread. Why sourdough? No yeast is allowed in the kitchen, I'm told. 'Moonshine,' my lunch companion confides in a whisper. Ah.
"Our main course is pan-seared duck breast with cherry jus followed by blueberry cheesecake and berry compote. Perhaps not the easiest meal I’ve ever eaten with a plastic fork, but pretty impressive all the same."
"Me and my dining companion don some hair nets and head to the spotless, bustling prison kitchen where we find everyone hard at work. Led by head chef and NVQ trainer Adam (who is not an offender) the prisoners are honing their culinary skills. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio has been known to pop in for pasta-making tutorials while top bods from the catering industry are invited to witness first-hand how prisoners can become part of the world of fine cuisine.
"The atmosphere in the prison kitchen is convivial: there’s structure, routine, teamwork and skill. Since the scheme began, more than 500 prisoners have graduated from The Clink training projects to date. Graduates have been successfully placed in front of house and kitchen positions at some top London restaurants, with more than 40 prisoners entering full-time employment.
"Serving prisoner Andrew (pictured at the top of the page) shows us his prep area. We don’t ask him what he’s in here for (that’s against the rules, as is revealing his identity) but we do ask him about his food and he can't hide the pride he takes in his setup. After politely showing us around, he gets up in front of the restaurant to tell his story. It's a tale of 'finding trouble' on the outside and losing it again in the kitchen.
"For all the bonhomie, one of the most exciting things about The Clink is that this isn't just pie in the sky optimism – it's a formula that actually works. You only have to glance at the research. In their published data on re-offending rates, the Ministry of Justice found prisoners who found some sort of employment within a year of their release were 20% less likely to re-offend.
"'In most prisons,' says the chief executive of The Clink charity, 'ex-offenders leave the gates without much idea of what they’re going to do when they get out, or how they’re going to stay out of trouble. Here, they leave with a set of transferrable skills and a place in society.'
"In the kitchen, two busy chefs are preparing vegetables in a harmonious production line. One of the lead chefs offers to stay on longer to help the team out with prep for the next course. Across the room a burly man with arms covered in tattoos is delicately placing two blueberries on top of a cheesecake with nervous concentration. Watching the satisfaction spread across his face as he completes a swirl of coulis with a final flick of the wrist, it's not difficult to be convinced of the good that The Clink is doing."