When you think of prison food, you probably think more school dinners than fine dining, but The Clink Charity is turning all that on its head with an in-prison restaurant training scheme that serves food to rival any top restaurant in Manchester and beyond.

The scheme allows prisoners to combine rehabilitation with learning new skills for front of house and kitchen roles in restaurants that are open to the public. ‘Changing attitudes, transforming lives and creating second chances’ is the motto behind the project, which offers a five-step programme – recruit, train, support, employ and mentor. It’s a much longer term approach than simply providing a training course that leads to qualifications. This project goes one step further and involves placing graduates in employment, and mentoring continues while they’re working in their new job. The incredible results can be seen in the statistics – a huge 41% reduction in reoffending for those who have completed the programme.

In 2015, HMP Styal in the north of Cheshire was the fourth prison to open a Clink restaurant. It was the first in a women’s prison and the first in the North West. Designed to recreate a real working environment, prisoners work 40 hours a week and train towards NVQ qualifications in Food Preparation or Food and Beverage Service. The overwhelming success of the project has led to a new concept café soon to open in Manchester city centre. The Clink Café, based in Canada House near Oxford Road, will be the first off-site for the project.

Jenny Thomas, café manager and trainer, said, “The Clink Café will focus on training Clink graduates and also homeless clients of the Centrepoint Charity to gain their accredited City and Guilds NVQ Level 2 qualifications in Food and Beverage Service as well as Barista skills. As in the restaurants, the food offer will use only fresh, high quality, healthy ingredients. With a strong brand identity, our café will replicate the core values of the Clink Charity in the heart of Manchester.” The Clink at Styal is the top rated restaurant in Cheshire on Trip Adviser. I went along to see the project in action on the same day that The Duchess of Cornwall was making a royal visit to learn about the work they do.

The restaurant is inside an old chapel with beautiful windows and a tall ceiling. On arrival, we were greeted by our waitress, Trish, who showed us to our table and was professional, friendly and knowledgeable, offering recommendations when we couldn’t decide what to have. We were dining from the lunch menu and were amazed by the Masterchef-quality level of the dishes on offer. After much deliberation – and help from Trish – I went for the smoked duck and blood orange salad with hazelnut oil and bramble jelly, followed by roast tenderloin of pork wrapped in prosciutto, black pudding mash, rainbow chard, apple gel, and sage jus, while my dining partner chose the mushroom, truffle and potato croquette, with leek cream and wild rocket, and the pan-roast fillet of sea bream, with tomato and seafood linguine and lemon oil.

The Clink Charity food

The food was beautifully presented and tasted fantastic. It was so fresh, with perfectly blended flavours. I was astounded by the quality of food these women are producing. Full as we were, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some of the gorgeous sounding desserts. I opted for caramel custard tart with coffee and mascarpone ice cream and pecan crunch, and my friend had apple charlotte with toffee anglaise and vanilla bean ice cream. I actually didn’t want it to end. As well as serving breakfast and lunch Wednesday to Friday, they do gourmet nights on Friday and Saturday, as well as Sunday lunch.

Prisoners can apply for the scheme towards the end of their sentence, and are fully assessed and approved before they can take part. At Styal, up to 30 women can train on the scheme at one time, and so far 68 have successfully graduated. Countrywide, this figure is over 800. Gail Gardner-Harding, Restaurant Manager Trainer, said: “We offer a unique dining experience to members of the public with great food and good service. We get a lot of repeat customers – the support from the local community is amazing. The programme gives women confidence and the chance to get used to working with the public again as well as cash handling and working the till system – skills that really help them fit back into employment. Some of our graduates now work in five star hotels!”

The project has the ability to reduce reoffending, to change lives for the better and to change perceptions from the public and employers. By having that access to the restaurants and meeting the people that work there, it breaks down some of the negative associations and enables us to open our minds to giving people a second chance. And if the food and service at Styal is anything to go by, I for one can’t wait to try out the new café.

theclinkcharity.org

Tracy Reeves