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Inmates cook up a future at London jail

Agencies | Updated: 2016-03-29 09:26
Inmates cook up a future at London jail

A prisoner cooks a stir-fry in the kitchen at the Clink Restaurant ahead of the lunch service inside Brixton Prison in south London.[Photo/ Agencies]

With its leather chairs, glass tables and London prices, The Clink seems like any other restaurant. But the cutlery is plastic, the kitchen knives are kept locked up and the view from the window is of barbed wire.

Located inside Brixton Prison in south London, The Clink lies behind three security gates in a courtyard ringed by high fences, and is staffed by inmates serving lunch each day to up to 120 members of the public.

"Prison is the worst experience of my life. This has saved me. It's kept me sane," says Matt, a trainee in the kitchen for the past nine months.

Outside, the 45-year-old ran his own construction business. Inside, he prepares dishes such as sesame coated duck breast with bok choy, priced at $21.

Today, Matt is one of half a dozen white-clad cooks taking part in a masterclass with Gilles Quillot, head chef at the French embassy in London.

"I was a bit nervous at the idea of coming into a prison, as you would imagine," says Quillot, as he showed one of the trainees how to prepare white asparagus.

"But I have to say that the guys have been absolutely fantastic ... I've already offered a job to one or two!"

Quillot was visiting ahead of "Gout de France" (Good France) event, when The Clink will join restaurants around the world in a celebration of French food promoted by the French government.

"To be a good cook, it's simple - you have to enjoy giving to others," he says. "So cooking is obviously a good idea for rehabilitation."

The Clink is one of four such restaurants run by a charity that aims to give inmates the skills and qualifications needed to start a new life when they are released.

They claim to have cut reoffending rates from about one in two prisoners nationally, to one in eight graduates.

But for many trainees, the scheme is as much about helping them survive their time inside.

'A second chance'

Built in 1819, Brixton is one of Britain's oldest prisons with former inmates including Mick Jagger - in 1967 following a drugs bust - and the notorious London gangsters, the Kray twins.

These days the jail is focused more on getting its 800-odd low-risk prisoners ready for release, sending some out into the community every day to work.

Prison governor Giles Mason says the restaurant, which opened in 2014, is "a really good part of what we do at Brixton" - and insists that no risks are taken when it comes to public safety.

The tables are neatly laid with black plastic cutlery, and the knives in the kitchen have to be signed in and out. There is no alcohol, and customers have to leave their phones and laptops outside.

"You don't feel like you're in a prison when you're in here," says Mohammed, a 23-year-old waiter who is working toward a qualification in hospitality.

Another waiter, Jamie, is a roofer by trade who has been in and out of 17 prisons in the last decade.

He says his experience serving the public has boosted his confidence. "I've given myself a second chance," he says.

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