Some readers will know that I’ve recently started working in Leeds’ prisons, which are truly fascinating and bizarre places to be based in. So what better way of marrying my employment with my love of food than a trip to the Clink, which is a training restaurant based in High Down prison in Surrey. It’s had a fairly high profile presence in the media over the past few years only slightly overshadowed by a copycat approach by Gordon Ramsey in Brixton prison. It’s been a huge success with reoffending rates dramatically reduced as a result of the scheme.
It’s not that straightforward to book at the restaurant as you have to have an association with a prison or relevant charity to put your name forward. Once you’re signed up though the prison provides lots of security information in advance so that your visit is a safe one. We were instructed to arrive early to ensure there was enough time to check in. This actually meant turning up at 11.30am which seemed a bit early for lunch! We were a bit disappointed at first as the reception is actually outside the prison, in the car park. However we were soon taken into the main prison, where the restaurant is based. The decor of the Clink is stunning – apart from a few tell tale signs (plastic cutlery, no windows etc) you would never know you were in a prison. Our waiting staff were also prisoners, which surprised us a bit at first, however this was a great way of reducing the sigma about convicted criminals and briding barriers with diners. A part of me felt that there was a bit of voyeurism from those dining, however this soon dissipated.
The menu was short and straightforward and full of European bistro classics. For my starter I had Cornish crab cake with a chilli and spring onion salad. The cake was a huge golden disc packed full of fresh and yummy crab meat that was very well spiced. My dining partner opted for the butternut tortellini which although extremely tasty and well made, were on a bit of the stingy side compared to the mammoth crab cake! It’s probably worth pointing out at this stage that there are no pictures of the food as guests are not allowed any electronic equipment into the prison, including cameras and mobile phones.
For mains I went for the beef cooked three ways, which was just too tempting! This was slices of roast beef, very thin and tender; slow cooked skirt that was juicy and fell apart at the touch; and an ever so slightly fatty beef cheek. The beef was served simply with a rich and meaty gravy and delicate piles of red cabbage and turned potatoes. This was actually quite a light dish, considering all the meat! My dining partner had an enormous sole stuffed with salmon mousse and sat atop piles of new potatoes. The sole was beautiful and delicate but we both agreed that the mousse was a little heavy and cloying and there was lots of it!
The dessert menu was full of classics like rhubarb cooked three ways, we however went for the ice cream. The restaurant likes to be experimental with their ice cream flavours and this weeks was beetroot – red and yellow! Having never had vegetable ice cream before I had no idea what to expect. I can report that the taste of the beetroot came through strongly and was more pleasant in the red version. The texture was very odd indeed, making the ice cream thick and a bit grainy. Accompanying the boules was a warm chocolate chip cookie, fresh from the oven. The cookie was beautiful, chewy and soft, a proper treat! These are also for sale to take home after your meal.
Overall we had an excellent meal and had we been in a blind tasting we would have had no idea that it was all prepared by trainee chefs, and behind bars! It was extremely good value for money, coming in at £22 each for 3 courses and drinks (although being a cat B prison they cannot serve alcohol). The restaurant comes in at a deficit so diners are encouraged to dig deep and make further donations – reinforced by the waiting staff who are happy to disclose their personal stories, demonstrating the value and worth of the project. It’s proving to be a successful model – the Clink number two is set to open in Cardiff in September and in Brixton in January (based in the kitchen put in by Channel Four for Ramsey). The organisation has a plan to open two Clinks every year for the next five years. I’ll have to have a word with the governor at Leeds to see if we can have one in Armley! It does have the second largest kitchen in the UK afterall! I guess it’s a no brainer that diners like decent, affordable food in unique locations – what makes it even better is that some of the most vulnerable, disadvantaged people in society get to learn invaluable life skills. We’ll certainly be trying out the new Clinks when they open and you should too…