At the end of last year, a restaurant in Brixton’s HM Prison became publicly known as one of the best in London. At the time of writing, the restaurant is at #18 in London on TripAdvisor, above some of the most critically-acclaimed joints in the city.
Two things can be determined from this. (or three if you’re counting the discrepancies in perception between critical reviews and public rapport). One, that the public don’t mind the idea of eating at a prison where the food (isn’t the very idea of ‘prison food’ to put you on your best behaviour?) is prepared by inmates. And two, it proves people whose actions have led to their incarceration don’t lack – or aren’t open to learning – skills of value to themselves and others.
HMP Brixton’s restaurant is part of a charity that equips prisoners with formal qualifications, so that they have a better chance of finding employment once they’re released. It’s not the only one of its kind, and it’s not the only prison restaurant doing well. Others include one at HMP Cardiff – currently sitting at third spot in Cardiff’s TA restaurant rankings – and The Clink Restaurant at HMP Styal, Wilmslow’s second best restaurant out of 65, according to TA.
By and large, it looks like it’s working. Over 800 catering students have graduated from HMP Brixton, some of whom have gone on to work in the kitchens of Aqua Shard, The Cavendish, and Wahaca. Other similar initiatives, such as Galvin’s Chance – set up by brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin, and Galvin at Windows GM Fred Sirieix to help those at risk of crime find meaningful employment in hospitality – have their own success stories too.
There’s Ben, who after being made homeless, was considered at risk of getting in trouble with the law. But due to a genuine interest in food – not to mention securing a sense of direction – was offered a front of house trial via Galvin’s Chance at The Landsdowne Club. He now works there full time.
Then there’s Jay, who had just left prison at the age of 23. The managers at Southwark hotel Citizen M were impressed with his punctuality and his want to engage, and offered him a role in their front of house team.
Others at risk of offending have been offered trials – if not full time roles – from some of the country’s top and most recognisable restaurants, such as Hawksmoor, The Goring, Duck and Waffle, and The Dorchester. Galvin’s Chance partners with these restaurants, and is always looking for more to collaborate with. So given the enduring drought of fresh talent, should ex-offender and potential offender recruitment be more of a viable solution?
Perhaps the feeling remains across most industries that working with people who have a criminal record (or something just short of one) is to be best avoided. But as public perception is showing, that stigma is verging on irrelevance. People are realising that a good dining experience is a good dining experience. No matter who’s prepping or delivering it.
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