Cooking with love on pounds 1.37 a day

Chef and restaurateur Antony Worrall Thompson went to Wymott prison determined to make institutional food seem appetising. Prisoners, patients and schoolchildren everywhere will be praying he succeeded.
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Potatoes loom large at Wymott jail. A pasty-faced inmate says he wouldn't mind if he never saw one again. Another complains about the casseroles, which contain little else. For a budget of 24p per main meal, you cannot expect cordon bleu cooking.

Or perhaps you can. At least if you engage the services of the London chef Antony Worrall Thompson, the man behind the capital's celebrated eateries Dell'Ugo and 190 Queensgate. Could he adapt the skills of haute cuisine to convert the daily slops served in Wymott into dishes both palatable and nutritious - and within the Dickensian budget required by Her Majesty's Prison Service?

The experiment, filmed for Channel 4, provided amusement for Wymott's kitchen hands, who observed Worrall Thompson's efforts with grudging scepticism, and an unaccustomed pleasure for the inmates. But in the process it raised some important questions about power, control and the role of food in institutions, including schools and hospitals.

The budget for food in prison averages pounds 1.37 a day. That is to provide three meals, delivering a balanced diet, with all nutritional requirements met. In hospitals, the equivalent budget is upwards of pounds 3 a day. In Mr Worrall Thompson's restaurants, pounds 3 is the approximate value of the ingredients on each single plate.

Those are the harsh economic facts, and they explain why prison cookery is long on potatoes, one of the cheapest fillers, and short on the choicer cuts of meat.

David Blunkett was also targeting potatoes last week, complaining that schoolchildren eat too many chips. The Education Secretary's concerns are different - about the nutritional value of school meals, rather than their palatability - but the issue of control it raises is the same. Food is about self-expression through choice. Defining one's culinary preferences is a part of expressing one's individuality. Offering choice and variety is as important as meeting nutritional needs - feeding body and soul.

According to Les Gofton, lecturer in behavioural sciences at Newcastle University, it is the need for culinary variety that makes human beings the second most successful omnivores on the planet - after the rat. Our inherent drive to experiment and seek novelty accounts in part for our survival.

"People - and rats - eat everything. We don't inherit a set of preferences which we slavishly follow. That is why diets are so diverse around the world," Mr Gofton says.

In early life tastes are determined by inheritance and are more uniform. Babies' love of breast milk and the childhood craving for sweetness are universal. But by adolescence, young people are experimenting with foods that might be described as not naturally nice - such as beer.

Mr Gofton says: "Developing acquired tastes is about developing individuality. A part of who you are is the sort of thing you eat. There is an element of rebellion here, too. That is why dietary rules tend to get broken. You cannot eat the same food all the time. You need to keep the novelty up. When it is reduced to nutrition a large part of what people get from food is removed."

For institutions charged with feeding large numbers of people on tight budgets, this is the chief problem. At Wymott prison, Mr Worrall Thompson is shown liberally dousing trays of rubbery fowl with spices to make a chicken tajine - a dish he names Doing Bird - and taking care to slice the courgettes for the vegetable lasagne, which are expensive, wafer-thin to make them go further.

His ample waistline, metropolitan garb (yellow trousers with watermelon motif) and matey style leave the catering supervisor Sean Mason distinctly underwhelmed. He, after all, has to perform this culinary conjuring trick every day of the year and he knows a thing or two about prison cookery. So confident is he that the famed London chef will be unable to deliver his promised stir-fried rice from the Wymott kitchens without it sticking that he offers a ribald bet - and wins.

It is at this point that Mr Worrall Thompson reveals a secret of the restaurant trade. If a dish goes wrong, rename it. Sticky Rice makes an entry on the day's menu - and is an immediate success.

Wymott prison holds 800 category C prisoners - those deemed unlikely to escape. They are put to work during the day - some building cell doors - and are hungry by the end of it. As one remarks, a hungry man is an angry man. Food was the catalyst for the riot at Strangeways jail in Manchester, and has been an element in many others, including one at Wymott in 1993. Investment in food might therefore be seen as investment in security. Instead a poor-quality, monotonous diet is widely regarded, both inside and outside the prison, as part of the punishment.

At the end of his shift, Mr Worrall Thompson receives the accolades of his diners - "It's the first time I have eaten vegetables in my life," one confides - before wandering out of the prison gates to observe that the experience had taught him how important food was to prisoners. In a context where little changes from day to day, what appears on the plate assumes a greater significance.

In schools, the lesson about the significance of choice has gradually got through. Most secondary schools now operate a cash cafeteria system in place of the single-choice meat and two veg of yesteryear.

Despite this liberalising trend, the proportion of children taking school meals has fallen from almost two thirds in 1979 to under half last year. Mr Blunkett blames deteriorating quality, attributed to the previous government's decision to remove minimum nutritional standards in 1980, which he announced last week would be restored.

Will that be enough to draw children out of the chippie and back to the school canteen? Mr Blunkett observed that one in nine children starts the day with no breakfast, and one in six go home to no cooked meal in the evening. For some, therefore, the daily school dinner is the only real meal they get.

However, a 1994 survey showed that the average teenager consumes four packets of crisps, six cans of fizzy drinks, seven bars of chocolate, three bags of chips and seven puddings, while eating only one seventh of the recommended quantities of fruit and vegetables. Even a top chef might find it hard to compete with the seductive lure of the local sweetshop and takeaway.

By serving poor food, life in institutions is diminished in a further way. Eating is a social activity. Part of the satisfaction of eating is derived from the way pleasure is shared. On boring diets, there is little pleasure to be had.

One of the chief complaints of the inmates of Wymott prison is that they are forced to eat alone in their cells. In psychiatric institutions, therapies for mental patients who have difficulty relating to others are based on food and the development of social skills around eating.

Mr Gofton says: "Giving people choice is necessary to recognise their individuality and to give them dignity. The psychological aspects of food are as important as the nutritional aspects"n

`Stir Fry' will be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday at 8.30pm.