Three-star Michelin chef uses inmates' recipes for cookbook

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The Independent Online

Prison food usually conjures images of gruel, cold mash and mushy peas, but in France a group of inmates have turned their hands to haute cuisine.

With the help of the three-star Michelin chef Marc Haeberlin, 600 prisoners from across France have collaborated to produce a recipe book for cash-conscious food lovers.

I Cook for Myself Alone is a selection of 100 recipes that Mr Haeberlin, who runs the restaurant l'Auberge de l'Ill near Strasbourg, has selected from recipes sent from France's 165 prisons as part of a nationwide competition.

Among the meal ideas, are the "two-apple prison pie", the "solitary salad", and the "simplest sponge cake in the world". Aspiring entrants were told to keep quality at a premium but cost to a minimum. Ingredients costing more than €1 were banned.

Mr Haeberlin said he was very impressed with the ingenuity of the prisoners. He said: "Some of the recipes were extremely original. But you could tell that some of them were written by people who knew the business. I suspect there must be a few ex-chefs doing time."

Taking pride of place in the book is the competition winner, which was proposed by a prisoner in Caen, Normandy.

He suggested "sea-bream with mushrooms on a bed of lettuce". The prison authorities were so impressed that they awarded him a brand new television set.

Although I Cook for Myself Alone is likely to be very popular with pasta-weary students, it is, ultimately, dedicated to detainees.

Dr Claude Deroussent, who treats serious offenders in Alsace and came up with the idea for the recipe book, said cooking can be an essential activity for inmates. He said: "Inmates are always coming to me for advice about food and diets. So it seemed a good idea to encourage their interest. In addition to the recipes, we include a section on sensible eating and how to avoid common prison complaints linked to digestion, cholesterol and diabetes."

The prison chefs have to make do with the scantest of resources. They have neither refrigerators nor ovens, and each kitchen contains just one electric plate, one frying pan and one saucepan.

However they can buy most ingredients from prison shops, or ask for parcels from outside. One recipe even calls for ultra-expensive truffles.

Mr Haeberlin said the inmates' recipes were impressive given the resources available to them. "Some of them have incredible technique," he said. "They throw together an oven by wrapping a stool in aluminium foil and putting a hot plate at each end. Necessity is the mother of invention."

Mr Deroussent said the aim of the book is not to get prisoners to supplement or replace their official diet - which is generally adequate - but to treat cooking as a constructive and therapeutic recreation.

He added: "Cooking is highly important in the everyday life of prisons. It helps people to come together and dispel their anxieties. It allows prisoners to dream, to escape a little."