Porridge: the life of a prison chef

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th March 2014
Working in a prison kitchen is not a job that appeals to many chefs. When you throw in the fact that your whole brigade are prisoners, it becomes even less attractive. But someone’s got to do it. Indeed some people do it because they love it. The Staff Canteen met Sodexo prison chef, Gary Cope, to find out why… OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGary Cope is the chef tutor and NVQ assessor at Her Majesty’s Prison Forest Bank in Salford, Manchester. His job is to run the kitchen and train all the prisoner chefs up to NVQ1 standard. The food production side of this alone is a mammoth task with two services a day of 1,700 covers each run by two brigades of 30-35 prisoners and a handful of prison staff. Add to this the challenge of training chefs on the job and throw in the fact that these are not just any old chefs but convicted criminals, and you get some idea of the challenges involved. Being a prison, one of those challenges is obviously security. “One of our main jobs,” says Gary, a 51-year-old from South Manchester, “is to make sure none of those knives make it back down to a prison wing.” In order for that not to happen, a series of rigorous security measures are in place, as well as regular checks and searches. Procedures and red tape aren’t the only challenge. “Apart from just getting on with cooking,” says Gary, “you’ve also got to be very aware of what’s going on around you.” Then there’s the issue with the strict timings. The 1,700-cover tea service has to go out at 4.45pm on the dot to the 21 serveries around the prison, and all the food trolleys have to come back at exactly the same time. This might not be an issue on a regular day but occasionally a security issue in the prison might mean prisoners who work in the kitchen aren’t cleared to turn up for their shift. Just such an incident occurred recently, according to Gary: “The food trolleys needed to be out at 4.30. We didn’t get any staff in until twenty to four, so that’s 1,700 meals to get out and only us, not the 35 lads that should’ve been there.” This isn’t the kind of catering where if an order doesn’t turn up, you can just change the menu. “Unlike most catering establishments,” says Gary, “if 1,100 people have ordered fish and the fish doesn’t turn up, we can’t just say there’s no fish. It has to happen.” Gary started out as an engineer in the Royal Navy before training as a chef in 1985. He started working in hotels but didn’t like the hours so switched to industrial catering, first in frozen food production then with the Gardner Merchant catering group (now Sodexo) where he worked in several Manchester catering operations. He was then the catering manager for a 300-bed nursing home before switching to the Salvation Army where he managed the catering for a hostel of 200 recovering drug addicts with no security. It was here that his unique skill set of food production combined with experience of dealing with challenging individuals found him in the role of prison chef. A contact recommended him for the position at Forest Bank and he took the job through catering firm Sodexo six years ago. Gary’s day begins at 6.15 when he arrives at the prison and undergoes a series of security checks. He then makes sure all the tools are in place and prepares the kitchen with the rest of his team. At seven the prisoners enter the kitchen and start preparing for the lunch service at 11.45. The food for the tea service is also prepared in the morning and blast chilled for reheating in the afternoon. After lunch service the staff take their own lunch and are back in the kitchen by two where they repeat the procedure for tea service and prep the ingredients for the next day. When the trolleys are back from tea and the washing up is done, he gets to go home, 12 hours after he arrived. Like any head chef, a lot of what makes his job run smoothly or otherwise is the brigade under him. “As workers, they’re very much the same as outside,” he says. “You get good, bad and indifferent. Some are very good workers; some others can be lazy.” Prisoners who apply to be part of the kitchen team are first vetted by the security department. After that the kitchen staff speak to the officers on the prisoner’s wing. If they get a bad report from them, again it’s a no go. If the prisoner manages to get through all the checks, they go straight into pot wash where, if they prove themselves, they can apply for other jobs as they become available. “When they first come into the kitchen some of them can’t open a can of beans,” says Gary but they are put on a station with a more experienced prisoner and, with some input from Gary and his team, they are soon well on their way to becoming competent cooks. By the time they’re ready for the NVQ1, according to Gary, they’re already most of the way there. “They’ve already got the basic knife skills, the hygiene skills, the clean as you go, and the health and safety skills so they tend to pick it up very quickly and achieve an NVQ1 within two to three months.” “It’s a very privileged job in the kitchen,” he says, “The worst thing we get is people messing about and throwing water around and being childish. We’re very strict on that. Anyone who throws anything at anyone is sacked instantly.” All of which leads to a single, inevitable question: why does he do it? Firstly there are the success stories. One of the prisoners that Gary trained three years ago is now a sous chef with a major hotel chain working at a top football stadium. Others, once released, have found jobs with a local brewery,  as chefs in various pubs around Manchester. But, according to Gary, it’s not just the success stories; it’s the buzz of the job itself that keeps him coming back. “You’re doing another job as well as cooking,” he says, “so it keeps you on your toes. It’s the most interesting job I’ve ever had. I absolutely love it. I’ll stay here till the day I retire if they’ll have me.” So would he recommend it to anyone? ”Yes if they like a challenge and believe that the work they do can help give someone the work ethic and skills needed to get a job in the sector and break the cycle of reoffending,” says Gary.  

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 28th March 2014

Porridge: the life of a prison chef