A visit to The Clink

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd May 2014
The Staff Canteen visited the new The Clink restaurant in HMP Brixton for a taste of life on the inside… HMP Brixton The air is filled with the noise of chatter, laughter and the clinking of glasses. Waiters bustle through the throng, smart-suited and with that intent look of being in the middle of a busy service. One of them brings us our starter of roast butternut squash soup with homemade bread. The warm savoury aroma blends with the buzz of friendly conversation floating on the air. It could be any restaurant in the world. It’s only when you look out the window and see the high fences, the tersely-worded signs, the bundles of razor wire that you remember this place is different. The cutlery on all the tables is plastic, even the knives. No one is drinking wine or beer; those intent, smart-looking waiters happen to be convicted criminals. This isn’t an ordinary restaurant at all; it is called The Clink and it is right in the middle of Brixton Prison. Charity funded The Clink at HMP Brixton is the latest in The Clink chain of prison-based restaurants springing up around the country. First opened in February of this year, it joins The Clink at HMP High Down in Surrey and The Clink Cymru at HMP Cardiff as the latest outlet serving food to the general public while training prisoners to NVQ level 2 in cooking and restaurant service. Everything here is done by the prisoners, from the freshly cooked food, to the service, even the chairs and tables are made by prisoners. A closer look at the walls reveals a series of poems – that’s right – prisoners too. Not an ordinary restaurant at all then. “It used to be the prison governor’s house,” says my lunch partner, The Clink chief executive, Chris Moore, noticing my wall-eyed stare at the space around me. “The private dining area is called ‘the bubble’ because the restaurant is set right in the middle of the prison with windows on all sides giving a 360-degree view.” Chris became chief executive of The Clink in 2010 forming The Clink Charity to enable the concept of The Clink Restaurant at HMP High Down to be rolled out across the country. Founder Alberto Crisci had started the initial restaurant a year earlier as an experiment to create a more life-like training environment for the prison chefs by opening a restaurant to the public. Inside The Clink Soon Alberto, or Al as everyone knows him, has joined us at the table. “That was 45 minutes,” he says looking flushed and hyped from a busy service,“45 minutes to get out 90 starters and mains.” He is clearly proud of his brigade of  28 chefs and service staff who have just served a three-course set lunch menu to 90 guests. When you think that the restaurant has only been open two months and the brigade, apart from two chef-trainers and Al, are all trainees who only started learning two weeks before opening, you realise he’s got a point. Al was catering manager at HMP High Down for 17 years before he decided to take a punt on The Clink. “I think people didn’t know what to expect at first,” he says settling down to watch me eat my dessert – ‘a celebration of pears’ – with a critical eye. “I think the staff, prisoners and even customers were surprised at the standards we were trying to achieve.” Inside The The Clink kitchenAl’s vision was to train prison chefs to NVQ level 2 before releasing them into the world with a skill, a vocation, a chance of lasting employment and a reduced chance of reoffending, all whilst serving high-quality, seasonal, freshly-produced food to the paying public. It’s easy to see why people might have taken some persuading, but soon the figures were doing all the talking. “I don’t think they quite knew what they were letting themselves in for,” laughs Chris. “Al asked if they could improve the décor and start letting some of the public in and they agreed to do it. They probably didn’t realise we were going to have about 12,000 people dine at The Clink each  year.” Now with three restaurants open The Clink has served over 60,000 members of the public and trained over 500 prisoners. It has won 23 awards including the CATEY Award for Best Education and Training Programme, Time & Leisure Magazine Food Award for Readers’ Restaurant of the Year and is a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, each restaurant holding three stars. It has big-name chef ambassadors like Giorgio Locatelli, Antonio Carluccio and Cyrus Todiwala on board and later this year construction for the next Clink restaurant will begin in Manchester, subject to planning permission being granted, with a vision to provide ten training projects across the UK by the end of 2017. Perhaps most importantly it is having success bringing reoffending rates down. The national reoffending rate for prisoners in their first year of release is 46.9%. According to verified statistics, in 2010 14% of Clink graduates reoffended and in 2011 12.5% reoffended. Unverified statistics put the reoffending rate for 2012 at only 6%.Lamb Rump Lunch is finally over and I sit back replete and satisfied only to have it sprung on me that we can now go into the kitchen and meet the chef prisoners. I must admit my first reaction is one of nervous reluctance. The atmosphere inside the kitchen is abuzz with the high spirits of a team who have successfully completed a tough and busy service. There is laughter; there is whooping; there is joking and horseplay; if anything it’s got more energy to it than a ‘normal’ kitchen on the outside. Inside the kitchen I speak to one of the chef prisoners who we’ll call “Brian” for the purposes of this article. Brian has been running the pass and has overseen a mostly faultless service. He is still high off the adrenaline and explains to me how the brigade is moved around the different sections, each getting a turn on the pass. Brian started when the restaurant opened in February and has already completed the first part of his NVQ. He is also studying a distance learning course in drug and alcohol awareness. He is inside because of mistakes due to drugs and alcohol he tells me but he should be out in October and he’s looking to the future. “I want to carry on cooking when I get out,” he says. “It’s a new skill and I’m Hamhock Terrineenjoying it, loving it.” He’s still buzzing from service and I am too when I leave the kitchen as well as being slightly ashamed about my earlier prejudices. Brian is a beneficiary of The Clink’s five step programme –recruitment, training, auditing, employment, mentoring. It is the last two stages which are arguably the most crucial because 75% of prisoners released without secured employment reoffend within five years. In the last six weeks of their six-18 month training at The Clink, prisoners are given help to find employment when they are released. The Clink has relationships with Sodexo, Harbour and Jones, Compass, BaxterStorey, Travelodge, Premier Inn, Grosvenor House Hotel and other potential employers, all of which makes the task of finding employment easier. But it doesn’t end there. The mentoring stage means prisoners are helped from the first day of their release to six-12 months after, with weekly meetings to make sure they are staying on track as well as help with accommodation and other potential pitfalls. Asparagus It’s on the outside where the real battle is fought according to Chris: “It’s really hard when you leave prison. Society goes against you; your car insurance triples; home insurance triples; you might not get loans or mortgages or be able to open a bank account.” I think about “Brian” who I met in the kitchen earlier, looking forward to getting back to his girlfriend and family and getting into a career in catering. I wonder if, come October, he’ll be able to use this opportunity to escape the mistakes of his past. The Clink, it would seem, is set up to give him every opportunity to do so. I leave HMP Brixton an hour or so later – a release which I take for granted in a way that the staff of The Clink can only dream about. I have learnt a few valuable lessons today though and had a few silly preconceptions shattered. Prisons aren’t just full of dangerous ‘others’ who need to be locked up and punished; they’re full of normal people like” Brian” who have made and continue to make mistakes and who dream about better futures, like us all.
The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 23rd May 2014

A visit to The Clink