Readers of the series of posts we’ve been putting up following this year’s Restaurant Show in London will recall an account of a session on Train to Retain. One of the panel members was Chris Moore, CEO of The Clink charity, a charity which aims not just to help released prisoners to make a successful new start; but also to prevent the vulnerable homeless from sliding into crime in the first place.

In our original post we said that Chris Moore had so much of interest to say that his contribution would be reported in a separate post. Here it is.

Finding steady employment is key to helping ex-cons go straight, so Moore reemphasised the skills shortage in the hospitality industry, described by other panel members as being a major problem. “One in eight new jobs are in the hospitality industry” he says, “the prison population can help to fill the gap. After all,” he says with quiet humour, “many of them have shown considerable entrepreneurial acumen”.

And it’s not a risk for employers, he insists. “At least you know everything about these applicants. How much do you really know about the others?” Something to think about in an industry where ‘shrinkage’ is rife.

There’s no doubt that The Clink has a very impressive success rate. Government figures published this year (2019) show that re-offending rates for those trained in the Brixton restaurant were only 11%, in comparison with 32% for prisoners not involved in the project. Nationally, re-offending rates of The Clink graduates are about half those of similar inmates who haven’t gone through this programme.

The success rate is partly thanks to employment offers from hotels such as The Royal Lancaster, Holiday Inn and Park Plaza; from caterers such as CH & Co, BaxterStorey, and Compass; and high street chains like Benugo’s.

 

The Clink restaurant within Brixton prison.

The Clink restaurant within Brixton prison.

 

How did it all start

The whole idea started when Al Crisco was working as the catering manager at High Down prison. Crisco had two childhood friends who had ended in gaol (their mother had left them in their teens, they’d become heroin addicts and turned to crime to pay for their habit). One choked on his own vomit, and the other committed suicide, two events which left a deep, and tragic impression on him. Later, his parents gave him their life savings to set up a café but he went bankrupt over Black Wednesday, and had to find a job.

So he ended up as catering manager at HMP High Down, where he began to take an interest in the inmates. He noticed the number (about 60%) that returned. He trained his chefs to become trainers and assessors in order to give some of these prisoners a City & Guild qualification. Disappointingly the percentage re-offending didn’t change. Crisco asked why, and the answer was invariably, “but Gov, no one will give me a job… they won’t even give me an interview.”

It seemed that it was a waste of their time, and of his time, and of his team’s. Nothing deterred, Crisco explains, “I created something called the Gourmet Lunch For Jobs”. He set up a dining room table in his stock room and invited senior hospitality managers, decision makers, to enjoy a four-course lunch, prepared and served by the prisoners. “And it worked,” says Crisco, “they’d hand the prisoners their card, and said ‘when you get out, give me a call. I’ll give you a job’”. Reoffending rates improved.

Then, in 2007, Highdown had to expand to accommodate an additional 400 prisoners. Instead of asking for a bigger kitchen, Crisco asked the prison Governor to push the catering part of the project to the end. This gave him time to develop his concept of restaurants-within-prisons. To do this he needed more funds and he was put in touch with a group of philanthropists who helped him raise an additional £300,000. In 2009 the first Clink restaurant was opened.

The restaurants are beautiful, professionally lit, and decorated with ex-prisoners’ poems etched into glass, and art work from prisoners (sourced from The Koestler Trust and Fine Cell Work). The furniture is made by prisoners.

 

The Clink

The restaurants are decorated with ex-cons’ poetry etched into glass.

 

Moore explains that the restaurants are just a part of the process. “This is a real farm to fork exercise. We offer NVQs not just in hospitality but also in horticulture. Our salad, eggs, vegetables… their all ‘home’ grown. Our menu is seasonal, and it’s changed five times a year. If we are offering crab ravioli then that’ll be made by whole crabs which come in, and the pasta will be freshly made.”

 

The Clink kitchen

“And the pasta will be freshly made….”

 

Indeed, the latest autumn menu has just been announced, and it is lipsmackingly attractive. Now the ravioli is filled with butternut and ricotta, and an alternative starter is a carpaccio of venison with parsnip crisps.

Main courses include herb-crusted hake with gnocchi, cherry-glazed duck breast and mixed bean casserole with kale and chickpea dumplings.

For pud, chocolate orange mousse with brioche crumble is on offer, as well as spiced pumpkin pie and poached plum tarte tatin with coconut and marshmallow ice cream.

The concept is to ensure the standard the prisoners can offer employers is as good as, or better, than the other available candidates.

 

The Clink five point plan

How is this achieved? Moore outlines the five stage plan of the process which follows the prisoner for 18 months prior to release, through to at least a year post release. It’s the continuous aspect of this he says which is key – there are many initiatives, pre-release and post-release, but few connect the two.

 

  1. Recruiting

Recruitment for the scheme is run through the Inside Times, through prison radio, and other local advertising. “We’re looking for those who have 18-6 months left to run before release,” Moore says, “and they need to be keen and willing volunteers.” They also have to be able to read and write, which can be a problem when the average reading age of half the prison population is only 11. If their illiteracy presents a problem they are offered lessons to overcome this first, and can then reapply.

 

  1. Training

Training is the next stage. The Clink is a registered training college, offering NVQs, but the technical skills, Moore says, are the least of it. Many lack social skills, they may not be used to working in a team. The Clink recruits are asked to take birthday cakes to the table of a celebrating guest, and sing Happy Birthday. “Many balk,” he smiles, “but we say, if you’re hard enough to rob a bank, you must be hard enough to do this.” Once achieved the confidence of the individual blossoms, “and then we have to make a rota for Happy Birthday singing”.

Another aspect of the training is to replicate normal working conditions as much as possible. “We train a lot of older people and most have never worked in industry before. In normal conditions they come out for two hours in the morning, then they’re back in their cells for two hours, out for another two.. that’s it. They’re used to a 20 hour week with 10 hours of siesta.” By contrast, The Clink recruits have a standard 40 hours working week.

 

The Clink Restaurants

The Clink students work a standard 40 hours a week in a professional restaurant – this one, in HMP Styal is in a converted chapel.

 

The whole process helps to fundamentally change the identity of the prisoner from a negative to a positive one. “For most prisoners, their identity is rooted in their past, in their crime, how many times they’ve been in prison, how much more time they have to serve…this changes and they begin to think more hopefully, to focus on how many more units of their NVQ they need to do, on who they’ve served, on the fact that they can now fillet a fish… it gives them pride, a feeling of self-worth.”

And it’s not just the prisoners who are being trained. In 2017 100,000 members of the public were served in The Clink restaurants, and all were voted Number One in their area. “I’m not pretending that our Brixton restaurant really serves the best food out of 19,000 London restaurants” says a realistic Moore, “but it does show overwhelming support from the public for what we are trying to do.” The prison community is a part of the community as a whole – many of those within it never had a chance, everyone has a responsibility to do what they can to try to give them a second chance.

 

  1. Support

The third stage of the programme is the strong support offered throughout. “We aren’t like an ordinary college where all students start on the same day and complete a term at a time,” says Moore, “we have people coming and going throughout the year. They all have individual learning needs. We train our assessors, and so does the prison.”

“But the prisoners themselves give each other support… if one is having difficulty reading, another will help him out. Bear in mind, many have no family… or they have the wrong kind of family, so they gain so much from the family offered by a commercial kitchen.”

 

  1. Employment

The fourth stage is employment. The Clink now supplies candidates to nearly three hundred employers. There is a full list in The Clink’s Yearbook, available on the website. Chef ambassadors, such as Albert Roux, Giorgio Locatelli, Cyrus Todiwala and Lisa Allen work quietly aside prisoners giving invaluable training; but they are also there as talent scouts. Antonio Carluccio was an inspirational founding chef ambassador, running training workshops and fundraising events.

 

  1. Mentoring

The fifth and final stage is mentoring, and Moore says this stage is the key to success. It’s at the gate where a prisoner needs support most. It’s at this stage that accommodation and employment are hard to find. “We will meet them at the gate, we’ll ensure they have a roof over their heads, we’ll help them with their CV and their disclosure letter, where they explain their crime, the sentence, why they want to put them behind them.. .. their hopes for the future. Our support is 24/7, and it continues for at least a year after release.”

You only have to read this description by Grant, a graduate of The Clink, to see just how fundamental that support is.

“Not proud to say, but at my lowest point I had lost my girlfriend, contact with my family and was about to be homeless due to drugs. The Clink paid my rent and kept a roof over my head, quite literally…. I think it was at that point that I decided to change my life and use what I was taught. I took a job as a Chef de Partie at a little restaurant on Portobello Road….”

Grant is now working, some four or five years on, in Scotland as a sous chef, and was a finalist in Game Chef of the Year.

 

The future

Where does The Clink go from here? Prevention is certainly better than cure, and one initiative is the introduction of Clink Events – a catering service (which serves London’s Guildhall, Kensington Palace, and the Institute of Directors among others); and a café in the centre of Manchester.

 

The Clink Events - a catering service for Clink Graduates and the vulnerable homeless.

The Clink Events – a catering service for Clink Graduates and the vulnerable homeless.

 

The Clink is working together with Centrepoint, a charity which supports the homeless, to try to prevent these very vulnerable people from turning to crime in the first place. The idea is to provide employment outside prisons both for the homeless; and for released Clink prisoners. The Clink Events in particular add a different type of work to that already on offer. As one Clink graduate , Andrew, explains:

I am also working with The Clink Events and this is something which I enjoy very much. We get to meet some amazing people and go to some interesting venues. I enjoy it as I get to work more as front of house rather than my day job as a chef.

 

The Clink provides a fantastic source of candidates for the hospitality industry. As Crisco concludes, “surely everyone deserves a second chance.”

 

You may also be interested to read our post on a visit to HMP Bronzefield, to see a prisoner-Pimlico Opera production of Sister Act

 

 

Below, here’s a recipe devised by Sebastien, The Clink Head Chef at HMP Cardiff, for the summer 2019 menu.

 

The Clink recipe for charred sea bass, courgette salsa, lemon reduction and basil crisps

Courgette salsa:

  • 10 courgettes
  • 4 white onions
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 red chillies
  • parsley, chopped
  • juice and zest of 5 limes
  • 100ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • black pepper
  • paprika
  1. Prepare and dice all the vegetables and then saute quickly on a high heat in a frying pan.
  2. Remove from the pan and cool rapidly. Add 1 bunch chopped parsley, 2 lime zest and juice, 100ml white wine vinegar, 1 tbsp sugar, black pepper and paprika.

Lemon reduction:

  • 10 lemon zest and juice
  • 50ml maple syrup
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 200ml water
  • 1gr agar agar
  1. Bring all the ingredients to the boil and reduce by 1/3rd. Add the agar-agar powder to thicken a little.

Basil crisps:

  • 1 bunch basil
  1. Deep-fry the leaves in hot oil and when translucent, remove and season lightly.

 

charred sea bass, courgette salsa, lemon reduction and basil crisps

charred sea bass, courgette salsa, lemon reduction and basil crisps

 

 

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