The latest UK dining hotspot: Prison

Beyond a mesh of barbed wire, patrolling guards and security cameras, the Clink serves up Michelin-style cuisine and helps inmates prepare for life beyond the prison walls.

“Doing porridge” is what inmates in UK prisons call serving time. It’s slang for the bowls of gloopy, boiled oats that were once ladled out every morning at lockups across the country. But the saying has taken on a whole new meaning following the launch of open-to-the-public restaurants inside select British prisons, where convicts work as chefs and kitchen assistants, cooking Michelin-style cuisine.

The brainchild of The Clink Charity, set up to reduce reoffending rates of ex-offenders by training and placing graduates into employment upon their release, three prison restaurants now operate in the UK. The newest is The Clink in south London’s Brixton neighbourhood, opened February 2014. You can find it beyond the menacingly thick-steel doors of Her Majesty’s Prison: a mesh of barbed wire, patrolling guards, sniffer dogs and security cameras. Given that dining at the jail requires an in-depth security briefing before a reservation is confirmed, visiting can be, well, complicated.

You must book 72 hours in advance, be at least 18 years old and prepared to turn over your mobile phone when you arrive. Handbags and purses must be left behind, pockets need to be emptied and you may be subject to a biometric assessment that includes having your fingerprints and photograph taken. But those willing to comply are in for a unique experience.

At the Brixton restaurant, the dining room décor features textured stone walls and mood lighting – you could almost imagine you’re in one of London’s finest hotels. The banquet seating and tables – handcrafted in prison workshops – couldn’t be further from the image of prison life.

The gourmet menu changes daily. Dishes vary from the likes of pan-seared cod loin with pea crust, confit potatoes, pancetta and samphire, to thyme roast guinea fowl with celeriac rosti and chargrilled vegetables. Dessert could be a chocolate and chili tart served with lime infused crème fraiche – or a variety of ice creams, all of which are made fresh onsite, every morning. Could a Michelin star be next?

“We’ve been visited by the Michelin team,” said Chris Moore, chief executive of The Clink Charity, with a chuckle. “But we’re not open to the public in the traditional sense as a walk-in, walk-out restaurant, so we’re not eligible – though they did say they loved the place.”

Of course, some would argue that this 120-seat restaurant is the least desirable place in the country to dine. But they’d be missing the trick; the idea of inmates being entrusted with sharp knives and dangerous cooking utensils is not as fanciful as it seems. Only non-violent offenders can participate, and those who do are subjected to a rigorous interview process (with hundreds of inmates from prisons across the country applying for every job). Successful candidates work eight hours a day, 40 hours a week and each training session is meticulous (knives and sharper kitchen implements are kept under lock and key when not in use). More importantly, The Clink has a serious community purpose at its heart. The project is part of a greater five-step rehabilitation programme to recruit, train, audit, employ and mentor inmates to reduce overall reoffending rates.

“We’re focused on the bigger picture,” Moore said. “When you come out of prison you need to have a tough skin. It’s difficult to find work, to get a mortgage, to pay bills. Society is against you and that’s why so many former prisoners reoffend. That’s where The Clink is really making a difference.”

The statistics don’t lie. Following the success of the first two Clink restaurants – one located at High Down in Surrey, and Clink Cymru at HMP Cardiff in Wales – reoffending rates have plummeted. Currently 49% of ex-convicts in the UK reoffend within one year of release; for those who serve sentences under 12 months this increases to 61%. But in 2011, the reoffending rate of graduates from The Clink was only 12.5%. The number of reoffenders for 2012 is believed to be around 6%, another huge drop below the national average.

One of the main reasons for this is the charity’s ongoing mentoring programme. After prisoners are released, The Clink Charity helps graduates find employment within the catering and hospitality sectors, counselling them each week for six to 12 months to help them reintegrate into society. Many have found work in high street restaurants, including Carluccio’s, Prezzo, Wahaca and Locanda Locatelli – four of the UK’s most successful chains.

And that’s not the end of the story. By 2017, The Clink Charity plans to add seven more restaurants across the UK – the next, due to open in spring 2015, is at HMP Styal, a women’s prison near Manchester. And there are now two Clink Gardens, where inmates farm fruit, vegetables and herbs to supply the restaurants. The charity has also recently invested in livestock to teach inmates animal husbandry.

But the restaurants, of course, are at the centre of the programme – and they’re proving to be surprisingly popular.

“We’ve had 12,000 visitors to the restaurant so far,” Moore said, referring to the Brixton location. “That’s 1,000 people a month – a real cross-section of society. So we’re changing the public’s perception of what life in a prison is like, and we’re helping out the hospitality industry. It operates like a normal restaurant, really – you just can’t sneak out for a cigarette break.”