INSIDE JOB: The Clink reveals what it takes to build kitchens in high-security prisons

The Clink

As far as challenges go when sourcing and installing kitchen kit, few operators have it as hard as The Clink. But with some of the most highly ranked fine dining restaurants in the country, it is apparent that success can be found in the most unlikely places. CEO Chris Moore explained at the Commercial Kitchen show recently how the charity-come-restaurant finds triumph even with its hands tied.  

There are operators all over the country who have had to squeeze kitchens into peculiar, irregular and frustrating places. Every restaurant owner will know all too well that any kitchen project comes with its own individual challenges.

But few compare to the difficulties faced by The Clink — a charity which operates fine dining restaurants in prisons. The Clink has outlets at four UK prisons, which offer the same standards as any fine dining restaurant, and has shown itself to be a commercially viable player in the market. Its brigade, however, is made up of prison inmates which the charity trains up during their time inside with the aim of rehabilitating them and helping them to smoothly return to society.

Since its inception in 2009 it has had to shoehorn kitchens — designed not only for fine dining but also for training — into Victorian buildings, all the while relying on equipment donations and a very limited budget, along with a host of other challenges.

But the response it has had from diners has been tremendous, so much so that it has won the sort of accolades a mainsteam operator could only dream of. Its Brixton site is rated number one out of 19,000 restaurants in London on Trip Advisor, while its Cardiff outlet is ranked first in Wales on the review website. For CEO Chris Moore, the endorsements are all the more sweet for the fact that The Clink encounters some mammoth challenges that have to be navigated when it comes to fitting a kitchen.

The first consideration most operators have in mind when designing a kitchen is budget, and it’s no different for The Clink. Only, this group’s budget usually starts at zero. As a charity, it does receive monetary donations from the public, grants and equipment suppliers, but most of its kit is secured through its own fundraising efforts.

As such, value for money is a top priority when specifying equipment, but also warranties — even if kit is second-hand it still has to last. The charity is constantly on the look-out for donations or discounts on kitchen equipment and it appears strong relationships with suppliers in the catering equipment industry is essential for The Clink’s survival. However, it is a two way street and by donating kit, suppliers are able to use the kitchens as showrooms to demonstrate units to clients.

After sourcing its equipment from anywhere it can, the group then has to work within the space it is allocated. Squeezing a commercial kitchen into any aging, tight space is a challenge, but given the role and requirements of The Clink’s kitchens, there is an extra element of difficulty.

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The Clink’s Brixton restaurant is ranked first in London on Tripadvisor above 19,000 competitors.

Speaking at Commercial Kitchen, Moore expands: “We’re slightly unique in that we have a plate and table service restaurant but also being a training environment our kitchens are sometimes the same size as the restaurant or certainly half the size, compared to your usual one-third sized portion. And we have to look at the available utilities as well. Our most recent project was in a 100-year-old chapel that had a 13 amp plug and a cold water tap, so quite a challenge for our designers you can imagine.”

Meanwhile, the core principles of the kitchen design follows those seen elewhere in the industry, with a clear focus on a good workflow pattern and compliance with current legislation.

At the same time, The Clink wants to have the most up-to-date technological equipment available. Not because it wants to be flash, insists Moore, but because it wants to teach prisoners to have confidence using the equipment. This is so that when they go into high street chains or Michelin star restaurants they’re not afraid of a combination oven that’s computerised — they will know how to strip it down and clean it. In addition to performance, The Clink places an emphasis on sustainable and energy efficient appliances where possible.

Moore says the biggest noticeable difference to a normal commercial kitchen is that The Clink has shadow boards where the knives are locked away — they’re issued out during the day and then they’re counted back and locked away before anyone goes back to their cell. Another difference is that it has to ensure all of its walls are clad and hygienic, given that the kitchens are usually placed in old buildings.

You have to be escorted absolutely everywhere in the prison so if you’ve forgotten something it’s a very long walk”

“Apart from that,” Moore says, “our kitchens look the same as you’d expect to see anywhere else.” He continues: “We ensure we have a multi-purpose kitchen. We only have 150 covers but we have 15 chefs training so we have to make sure all the sections are large enough for each person to work on, to make sure our lecturers can go around and support them. But we also invite in celebrity chefs and some of our suppliers to run master classes, so there has to be room for that too. We also consider the latest food and cooking trends, for example water bath cooking — sous vide — we’re watching that all the time.”

The Clink boasts a line-up of ambassador chefs including the likes of Albert Roux, as group chef ambassador, Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio. They will often come into work with chefs and offer training as well as talent spot.
While the kitchen set-up itself is marginally different from most other operators, the fit-out process is a world away from mainstream installations. Given the secure nature of the prison environment, the fit-out itself is immensely challenging.

Moore comments: “It’s not just a case of the installation company simply turning up and fitting, we also have to make sure that the staff are security cleared — they all have a tool sheet where they check in their tools. On average you can have around 1,000 tools being counted in and out every day. We count in the screws, nuts, bolts and the washers so it’s quite an operation.

“You can’t have any phones, cameras or any technology at all, so again with a lot of our up-to-date equipment where normally someone would come and plug in a laptop for diagnostics, we don’t have that option. Also, you have to be escorted absolutely everywhere in the prison so if you’ve forgotten something it’s a very long walk and can take the best part of an hour to get there and back.”

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The Clink’s kitchens have to function as both fine-dining preparation areas and catering colleges.

It’s clear then that the barriers put up against The Clink are substantial — not only in installing the kitchen but also in acquiring equipment. The fact that its restaurants perform so well against high street competitors makes its existence all the more impressive. It is a strong example of how operators can build high-performance kitchens under the most testing circumstances.

If The Clink can keep up its momentum, remain financially sustainable and continue to persuade suppliers to generously offer their equipment and services, there is every chance the concept will expand into more UK prisons.
Although it has a small budget, it does not have the same labour costs as other operators and is essentially immune from staff shortages and turnover — factors plaguing mainstream UK restaurants that will only get tougher in the wake of Brexit. It can therefore remain competitive in the industry and will no doubt look to expand its foothold in the market.

If its kitchens are anything to go by, The Clink is well-placed to overcome the adversity the restaurant industry is set to throw up in the coming months.

Solving the skills shortage and closing prisons

The Clink is both a registered catering college and a fine dining restaurant with four sites in Brixton, Cardiff, High Down and Styal. Through its chef training programme, it hopes to help solve the skills shortage issue gripping the foodservice industry while at the same time rehabilitating prisoners. Its vision is to have 1,000 prisoners trained a year, 500 graduates released and a sub 10% reoffending rate. It hopes to be keeping around 450 people out of prison every year, which it believes will allow the Prison Service to start closing prisons — unwelcome news for prison caterers, perhaps.

CEO Chris Moore explains: “The big issue we have today is that there are 85,000 adults in prison in the UK and, of those released, 46% of them return to prison within the first year of release. On top of that, 75% of them go back to prison within the first five years of being released. The other issue we have is that there’s a major skills shortage within the catering industry. By working in The Clink you’re working in an environment that doesn’t look and feel like a prison and working an eight-hour day meeting the public. We’re challenging the public and their perceptions.”

Catering college with a difference

Prisoners must have six to 18 months left to serve before being recruited to work in The Clink and they must have a basic level of education. Assuming they pass this stage they are signed up with City and Guilds, where they gain their Level 2 NVQ in foodservice and food preparation. The Clink supports inmates through their training, with each participant given an individual training plan.

In regards to job opportunities for inmates being released from prison, the charity now works with more than 250 employer partners who will all take on graduates. Chefs are now gaining jobs with five star hotels and top branded restaurant chains as well as Michelin star sites.

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