This is a short film explaining what my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate is about and how I started running pop-up kitchens at Beer Rebellion, a quirky bar in Sydenham, south-east London..
Spanish chef Alberto Crisco tells me he believes learning to cook can prevent prisoners reoffending. That’s why he set up The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton and in three other prisons.
What has been your proudest moment at The Clink and why?
My proudest moment was the day we opened in 2009. It was the culmination of four years planning and overcoming many hurdles. The look on the prisoners’ faces when they arrived for work was inspiring. They were so proud to be training in The Clink.
The Clink is such a brilliant idea. Why do you think it has not been taken up by more prisons?
The Clink currently operates in four prisons with two more in the pipeline as well as a gardening project and Clink Events which caters for clients in and around the M25. Clink Events also offers ex-offenders and homeless young people from the Centrepoint charity the opportunity to work and train with The Clink.
Typically, how many prisoners would be working in a kitchen at any one time?
We train 30 prisoners at any one time in the restaurants. This is split between the kitchen (professional cookery diploma) and the restaurant (food service diploma).
Who provides the training and how?
The Clink is a registered training centre with City & Guilds and we employ professional staff who are accredited assessors to deliver the training.
What are some of the challenges of running a kitchen in prison?
All tools, including knives, must be accountable at all times and must be locked away when not in use. If a tool goes missing then a full search is carried out by security until it is found. Prisoners that you have trained to a high standard being transferred without warning can be very frustrating. At the end of the day you are working in a prison first and a kitchen second.
What led you to The Clink?
I wanted to combine high quality training in a real work environment, break down barriers that existed with the employment of ex-offenders and also change the public perception of rehabilitating prisoners. To open a training restaurant that employers and the public could dine in made perfect sense to me.
How does a kitchen at The Clink compare to those at some of the restaurants you’ve cooked in?
A kitchen in The Clink is no different to any other I have worked in. Hard graft, teamwork and dedication are all essential.
How Spanish cuisine features on the menu at The Clink?
Our menus are typically modern British but with influences from around the world. All our menus feature seasonal and local produce. We don’t have any Spanish dishes on the current menu but ajo blanco (a chilled soup made with almonds) has featured previously and we make our own membrillo (quince jelly) that we sell by the jar and serve with the cheese board. We always have a homemade pasta dish on the menu as a result of my Italian heritage. The prisoners are all classically trained so making fresh pasta, bread and stocks is second nature.
What food do you recall from your childhood?
My fondest memories of my mother’s home cooking has to be homemade ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and served with tomato, basil and lots of Parmesan. Beef olives are also braised slowly in the pasta sauce as this gives the sauce a very rich flavour. Serve the hot beef olives with green salad and crusty fresh bread.
When did you first think of becoming a chef?
When I was still at school I used to work weekends for my uncle as he was head chef for Trusthouse Forte at Heathrow Airport. I went to catering college when I left school and have never looked back.
Have you any idea how many of your students at The Clink have gone on to work in catering and hospitality after prison?
We have placed approximately 200 into jobs that we have arranged and aim to release 1,000 graduates into employment each year by the end of 2020, providing we hit our target of having 10 prisoner training schemes in operation – we’re currently at six.
To book a table at The Clink Restaurant please visit theclinkcharity.org.
Many restaurants close down within their first year of opening. The reason for this is that the person with the bright idea hasn’t done their homework. “Yes, a great idea!” friends will say when the budding restaurateur reveals his or her idea.. Sadly many do fail.
One that hasn’t failed is Barrica, a wonderful tapas bar in Goodge Street. It hasn’t failed because owner Tim Luther really did do his homework before opening it in 2009. He spent weeks wandering around, popping in and out of bars and restaurants around Charlotte Street and counting the customers. Given the number of media companies located in the area, he felt confident that a traditional tapas bar would work. Tapas is casual dining and it’s about sharing. It’s also ideal if you are in a hurry.
“You can find information on an area on the web, but there’s no substitute to seeing it for yourself, going in the restaurants to see how busy they are, what they serve, what they charge, and what the footfall is,” he told me.
Tim is one of a number of talented and imaginative individuals who have brought to London an authentic experience of Spanish food. If you are thinking of opening a restaurant, then you would be foolish not to follow his example and burn some shoe leather. It could make all the difference between success and failure.