I have not dined in many restaurants where I have had to leave my mobile phone at reception, produce photo ID and negotiate a series of locked doors to reach my table. However, these procedures serve as a reminder that you are visiting one of Her Majesty’s prisons and what makes The Clink Restaurant at HMP High Down a remarkable dining experience.
I had not visited a prison before and I was quite nervous about what to expect when I was invited by the Institute of Hospitality to celebrate 10 years since the first Clink restaurant opened its doors.
All the cuisine is created and served by prisoners currently undertaking hospitality training, including City & Guilds NVQs in Professional Cookery. The restaurant is managed by The Clink charity (www.theclinkcharity.org) which also runs The Clink at HMP Brixton and The Clink at HMP Cardiff. The charity offers catering career pathways and top-level training to those who want more from post-prison life and assists inmates to secure employment once they have finished their sentence. So far, the scheme has achieved incredible results in reducing re-offending rates.
Stepping inside The Clink Restaurant, the transformation is simply amazing. The interior design is on par with any high-end restaurant, with a sleek layout, clean lines and beautiful lighting. The walls showcase poetry written by High Down trainees, and the leather furnishings are made by prisoners from HMP Frankland in Durham.
Our waiter, George, was attentive and enthusiastic. He was also very professional and liaised effortlessly with the chef and the kitchen team. He also chatted to us about the training programme and we learnt about The Clink Garden, where prisoners grow produce for the restaurants while working towards qualifications in horticulture.
And when the food arrived, it was heavenly. I chose the carpaccio of venison with parsnip crisps, roast beetroot and Parmesan dressing to start, followed by corn fed chicken supreme with puy lentils & pancetta, savoy cabbage, cavolo nero & smoked pan jus. Poached plum tarte tatin, ginger crumb, coconut & marshmallow ice cream completed a mouth-watering menu.
We may have used plastic cutlery and there was no wine list, but this was still fine dining at its best. It’s no surprise to hear that every Clink restaurant ranks very highly on TripAdvisor and bookings must be made months in advance.
More accessible than the prison-based restaurants, with no booking required, is The Clink Cafe in Manchester’s city centre. This uber cool space offers locals and tourists delicious breakfast, brunch or lunch options all prepared and served by not only Clink graduates, but also clients of local homeless charities.
The Clink charity’s projects are certainly an inspiring success story and I left Highdown feeling very optimistic for George and his fellow trainees. These budding chefs, maître d’s and hospitality managers are refusing to be defined by their current circumstances. They have chosen to make the most of fantastic opportunities to build better futures, and that can only be a good thing.