Criminally tasty: Britain's first prison restaurant

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I've played chase-the-reservation at some top restaurants and put my name on waiting lists, praying for cancellations, at places like The Fat Duck, The Ivy and Nobu. But until now, I've never had to have Home Office clearance and a government minder to get a table. Then again, The Clink is no ordinary venue. As the only commercial restaurant in the country to open inside a prison, it's arguably the nation's most exclusive eatery.

Based in HMP High Down, a category B prison in Surrey, the £550,000 restaurant opened this month and you are unlikely to see it advertised on Toptable.com. Visitors lucky enough to eat there are in for a unique culinary experience. Once you've handed over your mobile phone and any sharp objects and been buzzed through the solid steel prison doors, a prison guard escorts you past 30ft-high, razor wire-topped walls, through barred doors, security gates and past CCTV cameras to an anonymous brown door. Stepping through it is like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. You could be in any of the aforementioned West End venues. I had to walk back out again just to check I was still in a prison.

When you've come to terms with the sophisticated, high-end interior, the next shock is the attentive staff buzzing around the venue. In his book, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain wrote that most kitchens are manned by "whacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak-thieves, sluts and psychopaths". In the case of The Clink, and with all due respect to the committed men who work there, he's not far off the mark. Front and back of house, the diligent, courteous waiters and chefs are all time-serving offenders. The chef cooking your main meal on the bespoke Moltenia stove could be doing time for manslaughter and a convicted fraudster could be taking your order. The head chef and maitre d' are both former drug smugglers.

The final sucker punch is served up in the food. Freshly prepared dishes include sauté breast of chicken with pepperonata served with radicchio risotto, poached Pollack fillet with clams and bacon and spaghetti with fresh lemon, garlic and basil sauce.

Despite the obvious puns about doing porridge and serving thyme, there is a serious side. The Clink aims to train prisoners in high-end food service and preparation, ready for their release. It offers rehabilitation and opportunity through food. The Clink takes Jamie Oliver's philanthropic Fifteen philosophy and injects it full of steroids.

The architect of the project is charismatic chef Alberto Crisci, formerly of Mirabelle in Mayfair and the Regent Crest Hotel. As prison catering manager, he wanted to provide a vocation for inmates interested in food beyond doling out slops of mashed potato in the prison canteen, so he decided to build a high-spec restaurant within the gaol walls. When the prison underwent a £60 million redevelopment, with the support of the governor, Peter Dawson, Crisci started raising extra funds to make what is technically a staff mess into a state-of-the-art commercial restaurant and training facility. With an extra £250,000 raised by McGrath Charitable Trust, a body run by Kevin McGrath, the former Chairman of QPR football club, he realised his dream.

"The spec was ambitious," he admits. "I wanted a West End restaurant in the prison. I got what I wanted, but not what I expected." Designed by television makeover show presenter Derek Taylor and his Ishoka design consultancy, The Clink interior boasts computer-controlled mood lighting, air conditioning, state-of-the-art sound system and slate-effect feature wall. All the furnishings were made by prisoners. Even the marble-tiled conveniences have piped music, possibly a world first for prison toilet. The salad bar has an electronic glass cover that lowers to keep the hand-made roasted peppers, couscous and fresh salad selection daisy-fresh. Once locked inside The Clink, the only giveaways that you are dining at Her Majesty's pleasure are the green panic alarms on the walls and the plastic cutlery. While you can eat from china plates and drink from glass tumblers, prison service rules state that no metal cutlery is allowed.

Only exemplary, motivated inmates are chosen. "We assess criteria like the crimes they have committed, behaviour, health, risk of violence or escape," says Crisci. "I observe them in the main kitchen; see how they respond and how motivated they are. The Clink has a zero tolerance policy to any bad behaviour because we have customers from the outside world. Prisoners only have to step out of line once and they are out. This is a real restaurant, we are not playing here. I expect them to do exactly what I ask them to do."

Running a restaurant within prison walls is not without its challenges. Financial constraints and the lack of metal cutlery mean minute steak in béarnaise sauce replaces cuts like filet and rib eye. As Crisci explains: "We can't serve you anything tough, so we concentrate on slow-cooked dishes like shoulder of lamb and mutton hotpot." Wine can be arranged for special occasions, but because of the protocols surrounding bringing alcohol into prisons, it has to be tightly audited. Even baking bread presents unique hurdles. "The problem is the yeast," says Crisci. "It has to be carefully managed. If you have yeast, you have the means to produce alcohol. The prisoners working here are not the problem, but if it finds its way into the prison you have an issue."

Despite the limitations, quality of ingredients is paramount. Meat is sourced from an organic supplier, fish is supplied by a father-and-son business that operates from Selsey on the West Sussex coast and vegetables and salad are supplied from the prison's own gardens. Prisoners make their own stock from the chicken carcasses they butcher for ballotine of chicken stuffed with oxtail and black pudding; all pasta is handmade as are the cakes and biscuits served with coffee.

"We try and keep everything fresh and seasonal. We do a decent range of dishes and change the menu depending on what is available. The emphasis is on quality," explains Crisci. So far, reviews have been positive and customers have included Ronald Kinton, author of Practical Cookery and a party of 20 from the local rotary club.

As well as prison staff and their families, The Clink takes bookings from individuals, companies and organisations who are interested in providing future support, as well as accommodation companies, training groups, journalists, media, charities, patrons, members of the justice system, employers, politicians and groups involved in rehabilitation. It serves up to 1000 meals a day and also has a mezzanine level 18-seat banqueting room available for corporate hire.

The project is partnered with a local resettlement charity so in theory, prisoners training there for NVQ qualifications have the opportunity to leave prison with a job and accommodation, key elements proven to stop reoffending.

Crisci explains: "Once I started working with the inmates and saw their talents and got to know them I realised they are like you and me, the only difference is that they made a mistake, committed a crime and ended up in prison. I could see that some of them, with help, could easily turn their backs on crime and get a job on the outside. There are different levels of ability here, there are at least two guys here who could hold their heads up in any Michelin-starred restaurant." Prison Governor Peter Dawson is aware that critics will question why convicted prisoners deserve the opportunity The Clink provides. "I'm a taxpayer and if I heard that my tax money had gone to install a mood lighting system in a restaurant staffed by prisoners I'd question why," he admits. "I knew we couldn't do something as ground-breaking as this with taxpayers' money, so we looked for other fundraising possibilities. The income we generate goes to our partner charity that resettles prisoners.

"There will be critics, but I think people underestimate what you have to do for successful resettlement. If you send a drug dealer out of prison with no source of income and no professional qualifications, drug dealing looks like a good career opportunity. If you give him the chance to try and earn a decent salary and find somewhere for him to live, that starts to look like a more attractive proposition than drug dealing. I can understand why people will think it's a strange thing to do but every time a chef or waiter at The Clink serves a meal, they will play their part in dispelling the prejudice and ignorance that gets in the way of successful resettlement."

Anthony Ashford, a prisoner who works in the kitchen agrees: "When you are rushing to get orders out, you forget where you are. When I go back to the wing, people ask about it, it's created a buzz around the prison."

The inmates are trained by two former prisoners, head chef Dean Masters, who was released in 2007 after a ten-year stretch for drug importing and the maitre d', Francis Martinez, who served five years for the same offence. "A lot of inmates reoffend because they have no support when they are released. This gives them the opportunity to break that cycle," he explains. Martinez agrees: "There is much more at stake than just getting a job, for the prisoners. It's about reclaiming their lives."

The Clink: Diner's verdict

Location: HMP High Down is situated in a leafy corner of Surrey, set in rolling countryside. There is ample free parking with 24-hour CCTV and regular security patrols – often with dogs.

Food: Griddled minute steak with sauce béarnaise was served with piping hot fresh chips and a herb salad. The steak was cooked medium rare as ordered, with just enough char-grilled flavour to add bite but not overpower the meat. The béarnaise sauce was light and frothy. The plastic cutlery rendered sinew a challenge, but luckily the steak had been well tenderised. Fresh pappardelle with tomato, basil and spinach was fresh and al dente and not overrun by sauce. Bakewell tart and fresh vanilla custard for was light and spongy. The fresh raspberries added just the right hint of tartness.

Cost: Less than £15 for a meal for two.

How to get there: South West Trains service from London Victoria to Sutton and a number 280 bus. Alternatively, you could commit armed robbery.

The verdict: Excellent food, value and service. Interesting surroundings. I will be dining there again, if I get security clearance.

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