Prison Food: It's What's For Lunch In London

By: Qin Xie (CNN)
By: Qin Xie (CNN)
The meals are cooked and served by actual prisoners at restaurants located inside prison walls as part of a training and qualification program to help them prepare for life on the outside.

Alberto Crisci, former chef at the London's Michelin-starred Mirabelle restaurant (now closed), is the brand and training director of the project. The project has also been supported by celebrity chef ambassadors Antonio Carluccio and Giorgio Locatelli.

(CNN) -- Your phone's confiscated.

Your fingerprints are taken.

You're going to prison.

But don't worry, it's just for lunch.

The Clink Charity opened its third restaurant this week inside Brixton Prison in south London.

The meals are cooked and served by actual prisoners at restaurants located inside prison walls as part of a training and qualification program to help them prepare for life on the outside.

The venue is the third to open under the scheme, joining enterprises at Cardiff Prison in Wales and High Down Prison in Surrey.

Aimed at high-end diners, the prison restaurants are open to the public from Monday to Friday, for breakfast and lunch.

"The Clink at HMP Brixton isn't simply a new restaurant opening in London," says Chris Moore, chief executive at The Clink Charity.

"We're offering a credible solution to a major skills shortage within the industry as well as tackling the problem of re-offending."

The new London restaurant will serve a compact menu of upscale European food.

There are also five meeting rooms for working lunches for up to 24 people.

Guest treatment

The career history of the chefs and the prison environs aren't the only unique traits.

Booking at one of the Clink Restaurants must be done at least 48 hours in advance and guests must be 18 years or older.

Passports or other form of ID is needed to gain entry, and phones, cameras, large bags, laptops and sharp items are prohibited.

You're not even allowed to bring in more than $80 in cash -- payment for the meal is done by check or prearranged invoice.

You'll have your fingerprints and photo taken and may be subject to "routine searching."

"This would be similar to what you might expect in an airport," the guidelines and security procedures state.

The heavy rules apparently aren't putting people off.

Some 18,000 people ate at The Clink Restaurants in Cardiff and High Down last year, according to the organization.

How it works

The charity started in 2009 as the brainchild of Alberto Crisci, previously a chef at the Mirabelle restaurant in Mayfair, London (closed since 2008).

He's now the brand and training director for the project.

High Down Prison is a category B prison (in the UK, category A prisons are most secure, category D facilities are "open prisons"), and as such requires special measures.

Diners need to be approved in advance by the Home Office, the cutlery is plastic and alcohol is served in small measures and only on special occasions.

In almost every other respect, it's a restaurant comparable to any high-end establishment in London.

Brixton is a category C prison while Cardiff is a category D. The restaurant at Cardiff is attached to the prison, rather than within its walls.

Chefs and servers involved in these projects are all prisoners with between six and 18 months of their sentences remaining.

Trainees work full-time -- a 40-hour week -- studying toward nationally recognized City & Guilds National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) in food preparation, front-of-house service and industrial cleaning, before returning to their cells in the evening.

The Brixton addition is the third of what will eventually be 10 prison restaurants across the UK within the next three years.

"The Clink Charity, in partnership with HMPS, plans to have 10 training sites in operation across the prison estate by 2017," says Moore.

So far they're working.

According to the December 2012 edition of Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile, in 2011 12.5% of graduates of The Clink program re-offended. The national average was 47%.

But it's not cheap.

Crisci raised more than £300,000 ($500,000) in private funding to start the project.

And it's not yet profitable.

"Each Clink restaurant operates at a loss of circa £150,000 ($250,000) per year due to them being training restaurants and the mentoring work which is provided to the graduates for six to 12 months after their release," says Moore.

"We receive financial support from philanthropic individuals, HMPS and the government.

"This, and the money from people dining in the restaurant and the purchasing of Clink products, helps to reduce the deficit."

The food

Locally grown and sourced ingredients are used whenever possible.

The meats at Brixton Prison come from a local butcher, for example, while High Downs Prison supplies many of the vegetables used in the project from its own farm.

Prisoners at High Down also get to apply to work toward an NVQ in Horticulture and Gardening.

Dishes are contemporary and European in provenance, and the menu changes every quarter or for special events.

In the past, dishes have included crab-filled ravioli with a crab bisque sauce and slow-cooked spice pork cheeks and roasted pancetta.

Further rehabilitation projects

Guardian columnist and convicted murderer Erwin James supports the charity.

James was released in 2004 after serving 20 years of a life sentence.

"For me, there can never be enough rehabilitative initiatives in our prisons. Rehabilitation means fewer potential victims of released prisoners," he tells CNN via email.

"It's just a shame the government relies on charities such as The Clink to provide those initiatives.

"The Clink restaurants vastly increase the likelihood that those who take part will discover, or rediscover, the satisfaction of having a skill to provide a service that makes them feel good about themselves."

There are other charity restaurant schemes in the UK.

In 2002, Jamie Oliver opened his first Fifteen restaurant in London to train unemployed young people as apprentice chefs.

Fifteen restaurants have subsequently opened in Amsterdam and Cornwall.

The Brigade seeks to help those who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness in London.

But for some, the cost of running these schemes is too high.

The Hoxton Apprentice, opened in London in 2004, closed in 2012 as the charity behind the project went into administration.

The Clink Charity has no plans to expand beyond the UK.

The positive results are too good to back away from.

"People who feel good about themselves are far less likely to be inclined to cause harm and distress to others," says James.

The Clink Restaurants (Brixton, Cardiff and High Downs) are available for booking at The Clink Charity.


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