Clink-clink. But no pot of gold

Posted: 24 March 2012 in Prisons, Understanding Others
Tags: , ,

The Chef shows the way

Clink-clink – is the cash rolling in at The Clink Restaurant? You know – that famous restaurant in the prison, the one that’s been on TV. That even Government ministers go for their birthdays (I’m not kidding. Crispin Blunt went).

Well there’s plenty of food on TV and in the papers, but none like The Clink, based for the present in HMP High Down in sunny Surrey. But there may be one coming near you. One is opening in Cardiff this year and there are plans for another two. But another food chain opening up is hardly hot news.  What makes The Clink interesting is not the quality of the food (really good though it is), but who cooks it – serving prisoners. “State sponsors convicts to use knives again?” Not at all. It is a daring and tough programme to take men with no future but more crime to enter an industry that still needs: people with stamina, people with high skills, people with high sensitivity and craftsmanship.

This is what The Clink is really about. It does not make a profit for the prison. In fact its income is well short of the costs to run it. Yet it is not a burden to the prison (or us taxpayers) because The Clink is set up as a charity (no 1134581). It exists for two reasons. On one hand, to reduce offending rates by getting prisoners trained as fine-dining chefs and into fine-dining restaurants. I.E. good employment. On the other hand, to get us the public to demonise ex-offenders a little less, every time we see The Clink on TV or in the paper, or say – this blog. Every time we or an acquaintance eats in The Clink.

Yes, some of The Clinks “graduates” do go and commit crimes again. But the re-offending rate is 16%, instead of the national average 2 years after release being 60%.

As a conscientious citizen I say to myself “wonderful, let’s have one in every prison then!” But the business manager in me says “What’s really going on here? Is this replicable?” Catering training in prisons is not new, so what makes this different? The answer is fourfold. Firstly, they had a vision, we know what it is and it is attractive to us all. Secondly, in Alberto Crisci, they had a head chef who provides real professional acumen to bring quality. Thirdly in Chris Moore, they have a Charity CEO who brings entrepreneurial nous from The Hilton (his heart and energy are of course his own). And fourthly they have backing from the prison that has granite like determination to back what is a risky caper (at all levels).

The numbers in training are small (28 at the moment), it needs financial support from influential backers, and needs managerial and professional skills of a high order. In other words this will remain a small scale, but high profile, part of the business of rehabilitating into society the 83,000 men and 4,300 women who are currently in prison. Not readily replicable, yet I wish it well.

But perhaps it is best to end with someone who was in the system. Here is an extract from a letter written by Michael who was a serving prisoner who now has a full time job with a contract caterer in London:

“Crime has affected my life in many ways from a young age. My Mum went to prison when I was eight and was released when I was 16 then two years later I myself began a three year sentence for drug dealing. At this stage I had developed the attitude that things couldn’t get any worse so I thought I’d try my luck at whatever came along.

I applied for a job at NatWest which I got but after 18 months they found out I’d previously been to prison which I had not disclosed and I had to resign. I found myself back to where I had originally come from – ‘The Street’. I began dealing drugs again justifying my return to the criminal world with my recent dismissal; six months later I was back in prison for a firearm offence and I was sentenced to nine years. I quickly learned after sentencing that if I was to change my life I would need a career or trade. If I found something I liked doing I would never have to return to that world again.

After watching two years of Come Dine with Me and six months of Masterchef along with working in the prison kitchen I developed a passion for learning how to cook. The whole process of cooking seemed to have a therapeutic effect which can be helpful in prison life.

I contacted Alberto Crisci from The Clink after hearing about their scheme from a prison officer. I was apprehensive. To my amazement Al invited me in for an interview straight away. His blunt, straight to the point approach was a little scary at first but it was obvious this was a man dedicated to helping reform prisoners.

Now 12 months on I am now starting a job with a catering firm that caters for corporate clients. With the guidance and chance to change my life from The Clink I now have something to work towards.

The irony is, it was a prison restaurant that changed my life for the better…”

1. Go and look up The Clink for yourself.
2. Please note: all comments on this blog are my personal insights and views. They reflect, neither the official view, nor critique of, any organisation have or am working for.
  1. Kath says:

    What an interesting project and very encouraging success rates! But I think you’re right, a more careful approach is needed then simply reproducing the program.

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