On the first cold snap of the year, Lee and I headed to Brixton Prison as guests of The Clink Restaurant.
The Clink Charity, of which The Clink Restaurant is a part, is transforming the prison experience by creating opportunities for prisoners to work towards City & Guilds NVQs in Food Preparation, Food Service and Customer Service, with the aim of teaching them skills that will enable them to obtain employment in the UK hospitality industry, upon release.
Here’s a snapshot of the Clink Charity’s history and achievements:
In 2009 the first restaurant opened at HMP High Down in Surrey, when Alberto Crisci MBE, then catering manager, identified the need for formal training, qualifications and support for prisoners in finding a job after release.
High Down was just the beginning – the charity now runs restaurants in HMP Cardiff, HMP Brixton and HMP Styal in Cheshire. If you are in Manchester you can dine at the Clink Cafe, the first restaurant that’s outside a prison.
Catering from Clink Events and based at HMP Downview and train serving prisoners. They offers high quality catering for private events. You can order hot and cold canapés, bowl food and buffets which created from scratch by serving prisoners on the training scheme. Food is delivered in refrigerated vans and Clink graduates and students from like-minded charities such as Centrepoint will staff your event.
Clink Gardens was started at the women’s prison HMP Send in Surrey. The Bromley Garden has six poly tunnels for growing produce. Prisoners harvest seasonal fruits, speciality and heritage vegetables and salad items which are then transported to The Clink Restaurants. This enables prisoners to gain the nationally recognised City & Guilds NVQs in horticulture, increasing their employability upon release.
As part of High Down’s commitment to sustainability, 50 tonnes of food waste is composted each year and 2,500 litres of used fryer oil is converted into bio-diesel to run the prison vehicles.
The Clink is ambitious to spread the initiative and by 2020 they aim to be operating 20 projects which will see up to 1,000 highly trained and qualified ex-offenders being released into employment each year. So far 800 prisoners have graduated. Here’s how The Clink have helped to change the life of four people.
Sounds easy doesn’t it?
But a groundbreaking concept like this has evolved on the inside, a logical progression to life in prison and the notion that nothing is worse for us than boredom. This is a deeply rational concept and one that simply had to happen, not least for the immediate impact on prisoners but because it shows all of us that a turning point can be reached when we support each other.
Lee and I, and our fellow diners were passed through the security check by the restaurant manager. It was evident that she was very proud of her students and fully committed to their well-being and success once released.
Do book ahead to avoid disappointment (How to book).
The massive gates clanked open and we found ourselves in the secure portal between the outside and inside world. After a brief wait, the second gate opened and we found ourselves in a sun splashed quad. A spaniel, a highly sensitive sniffer dog, was busy drinking from a puddle.
We were taken over to the restaurant and immediately become aware of the serious nature of the environment. This is a world of towering fences, cameras and strict adherence to protocol.
The interior was surprisingly, well, like a restaurant! Purple lanterns and smart chocolate brown decor, perfectly folded napkins and a room buzzing with 28 people tucking in to their meals. Feeling relaxed is quite a change for us in the middle of the day. Normally we’re balancing a hastily made salad on our desks with phones ringing every 5 seconds. The phone free environment was welcome and actually enabled us to switch off.
Our waiter was charming, highly professional and really knew his stuff. He was excellent at recommending the best dishes and I started with assiette of chicken; confit chicken terrine, smoked chicken, chicken and herb mousse, button shallots, quince syrup. Lee was intrigued by the blue cheese bon bons, banana puree, roast walnuts, balsamic pickled girolles reduction, frisée salad. We were immediately struck by the colours and textures on the plate, even before tasting the food, the presentation was perfect. The portions were a proper size too and the flavours beautifully balanced.
My main course was the classic autumn dish of roast pork fillet with crispy belly, sage mash, apple puree and charred baby carrots. The pork was cooked to perfection and went so well with the sage mash. I realised that it had been several years since I’d had a proper roast lunch and this was exceptionally tasty – forget those memories of congealed gravy and wilting sprouts under light bulbs, this was fabulously fresh and the chefs are brilliant at combining just the right measure of flavours.
Lee went for pan-seared sea trout, seabass and plaice fillet, shellfish broth and side salad of spring onions, saffron aioli. She loves cooking fish and is a fine cook herself, so she was really delighted by this dish. and said it was cooked to perfection.
Lee followed with cheese, fruit chutney, celery and grapes. The platter looked so pretty and we learnt that this was assembled by a young man who was new to the kitchen – everyone had been commenting on his creations. The cheeses are all local, so the kitchen is supporting our farmers and producers.
Living up to my reputation as a chocolate lover, I went for the chocolate and pear tart, caramelised cobnuts, cocoa and lavender sorbet and wasn’t disappointed. This dish was a dream!
Feeling rather sleepy, we said good bye to our waiter and wished him luck. On the way out we signed the visitors book and gathered ready to pass through the security process as of course leaving is as serious and entering.
The Clink Restaurant is also all about leaving, as it serves to help people onto a new path. There is a double positive to making the Clink your regular restaurant because it’s not only superb food but it’s creating multiple benefits for people and for society too.
Curious to try it out for yourself? You can book online.
Donate to the Clink Charity