This May Be the World's Best Prison Food
Chef scrutinizes the char-grilled asparagus and burnt onion with fresh herbs.
The three spears are neatly parallel. The four dots of chive mayonnaise are equally spaced in a straight line, and of consistently ascending size.
Satisfied, he calls out, "Service."
A waiter, dressed in a smart uniform with a tartan waistcoat and gray trousers, takes the plate to diners in a high-ceilinged room whose modernity with slate walls and tiled floor draws warmth from soft lighting and colorful paintings. There are no windows.
It might be a restaurant anywhere. But the chefs and waiters are prisoners inside HMP High Down, a high security jail for 1,500 inmates. Most of the men are here for years, including murderers, rapists and drug dealers.
So what is that cabinet of butchery knives doing on the kitchen wall? Over there a large cauldron of boiling stock simmers. In the dining room, a broken glass could easily become a weapon.
This restaurant is run by the Clink, a charity that seeks to help rehabilitate trusted prisoners nearing the end of their sentences at four jails around the U.K.: Brixton, Cardiff, Style (a women's prison in Cheshire) and at High Down, here in Surrey.
My visit two days ago coincided with Prime Minister David Cameron's announcement of plans for prison reform, with a goal of giving offenders better prospects after regaining freedom. There are about 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales, according to Ministry of Justice figures.
On this day the chef on the pass has spent 4 1/2 years inside and is nearing release. "I never thought I'd be fussy about a potato," he says.
The staff has good mentors. Several of the U.K.'s leading chefs work for the charity, including Albert Roux, Antonio Carluccio, Giorgio Locatelli, Thomasina Miers and Cyrus Todiwala. Another supporter is Silvano Giraldin, who retired in 2008 after 37 years at two Michelin-starred Le Gavroche, where he ruled the dining room with iron discipline.
The inmates learn how to cook and serve the paying public, who have applied in advance and received security clearance. Each diner must bring a passport or driving licence and be fingerprinted. Tipping and mobile phones are banned, which makes for a pleasant dining room.
After the asparagus comes pan-fried, poached and confit chicken, fondant potato, roast carrots and curried bread sauce, at £12.95 ($19) followed by a trio of rhubarb with yogurt gel and crumble crunch, at £6.25. These are ambitious dishes, showing a range of cooking techniques and were expertly prepared and presented. The quality is higher than you will find in many restaurants.
Being in a prison brings limits. No yeast because it can be used in brewing, while vanilla essence is banned because it contains alcohol. No wine or drinks are served and the cutlery is plastic. (The kitchen knives are kept in a locked cupboard with a so-called shadow board that shows any missing.)
The waiters are more attentive and focused than you find in many places on the outside.
"Prisoners get the chance to learn practical skills with which we can try to help them get jobs," says Chris Moore, the chief executive of Clink. "But the soft skills are as important: Confidence, motivation, pride and waking up in the morning with a sense of purpose."
The charity cites an 87.5 percent success rate in reducing offences.
Much of the produce for the restaurant comes from a nearby women's prison, HMP Send, where the inmates grow fruit, vegetables and herbs.
"Some of our women have committed very serious crimes," HMP Send Governor Carlene Dixon says. "We have a lot of lifers. But women prisoners are very vulnerable. They lack self-worth. A lot are victims of domestic violence and have had the self-esteem battered out of them."
One of the most popular jobs in the Horticulture and Garden Complex at Send is caring for the Rhode Island Red chickens whose eggs supply the restaurant. The birds wander around, snacking on organic layered pellets and corn as well as greens from the garden.
Yup, the animals are free-range and humans are caged.