Carol King interviews award-winning chef Alberto Crisci, who set up The Clink Charity in the UK.

Fine dining in a prison sounds like a strange idea, but as someone who has visited The Clink Restaurant within the walls of High Down men’s prison in Surrey, England, I can tell you it’s as good as many restaurants in London.

The Clink is staffed by prisoners and is open to the public. A friend who works at the prison invited me there for lunch. Warned I needed to take my passport with me as identification, I headed for the prison entrance. I had to leave my passport and mobile phone with security guards. At that point, I was expecting to dine with my friend in a staff canteen. What a surprise I had.

After a short walk through a maze of corridors, I arrived in a stylish, modern setting that could have been a restaurant anywhere in Britain. The manager met us and showed us to our table in what was a lively, packed restaurant. The menu of the day offered a mix of Mediterranean and traditional English dishes, and our waiter explained what the specials of the day were. At the time, it never occurred to me that the polite young man was a prisoner or to think what crime he had done that led him to serving time. The service was prompt, friendly and impeccable throughout my visit.

The food was excellent. I started with spinach and ricotta ravioli with sage butter sauce. My main course was fillet of haddock with a soy, lime and spring-onion dressing served on a carrot and coriander rice cake. To finish, I ordered a chocolate and orange dessert that was to die for: dark, rich, melting and tangy. I came away impressed and wanting to know more about The Clink. I was fortunate to interview the man who devised The Clink concept, chef Alberto Crisci.

You are of Italian heritage, how has that shaped your identity?
My parents emigrated from Campania in southern Italy in 1958 and worked as mental-health nurses in Epsom, Surrey. My mother is from Avellino and my father from Caserta, they met and married in Epsom where there was, and still is, a large southern Italian community.

When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
I was advised to try catering by a careers advisor at school as two of my uncles were head chefs and I used to work with them during school holidays. I enrolled full time at Merton Catering College for two years [where I] gained my City & Guilds [certificates] 7061/2 in food preparation and cooking, and 707/1 [in] food service.

Once qualified, I worked for a hotel in Rimini, Italy before returning to England, working as a commis tournant at the Michelin-starred Mirabelle restaurant in Mayfair, London. I then went on to work at the Regent Crest Hotel in Great Portland Street. After an eight-year period running my own restaurant and wine bar, I became the catering manager at Her Majesty's Prison High Down where I began to train prisoners to achieve catering qualifications.

The Clink Above

How has Italian cuisine influenced you?
I am heavily influenced by Italian cuisine as my mother and extended family always cooked traditional Italian food. I love the fresh, simple ingredients and seasonality of it all. As a child when I was in Italy, I could sense the excitement of the kids when the tomatoes were ripe, or the figs or oranges.

Do you visit Italy often?
I visit Italy almost every year and stay at my family’s home in the mountains, 20 minutes from the Amalfi Coast – my favourite place!

When did you have the idea for The Clink Restaurant?
I first had the idea in 2006.

How easy was it getting The Clink Charity off the ground?
It was a long, slow process getting the restaurant and charity off the ground, but with persistence and the support of the governor at the time Peter Dawson, Kevin McGrath of The McGrath Charitable Trust and [fund raiser and former prison officer] Kate Quigley-Ruby, we achieved our goal.

What are The Clink restaurants like?
The Clink restaurants are contemporary, high-end restaurants that are staffed by offenders currently undergoing training and ex-offenders that have been offered full-time employment.

What kind of food do The Clink restaurants serve?
They serve modern European cuisine that uses local, seasonal and sustainable produce.

How does The Clink training programme work?
It operates in a similar fashion to a catering college, using teachers and trainers to cover both practical and theoretical learning paths.

How successful has The Clink Charity been in achieving its goals?
The Clink Charity has reduced the re-offending rate to 10% opposed to the national average of 47% within the first year.

Various Italian chefs have been involved in The Clink project, who are they and what have they done?
Both Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio have become ambassadors for The Clink and regularly come into the restaurant to train the prisoners. In addition, they both help by either employing ex-offenders or supporting their employment.

What are your future goals for The Clink?
The future goal of The Clink Charity is to expand and roll out the model within other UK prisons, and to evolve the model to include other skills such as butchery and horticulture, as well as a pop-up mobile restaurant. The main aim however is, and will always be, to reduce re-offending.

Alberto Crisci Restaurant

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The Clink Charity was set up in 2009. It aims to reduce re-offending rates of ex-offenders by training and placing graduates upon their release into the hospitality industry. The charity represents an opportunity for change, offering prisoners the chance to gain food preparation, food service and cleaning qualifications. An award-winning restaurant, The Clink at High Down seats up to 92 people, with an additional private area for up to 20 people. To date, 85 prisoners have been or are being trained in The Clink at High Down and 25 have successfully been released into full-time employment. The charity is developing The Clink concept in other prisons throughout the UK, and The Clink Cymru opened at Cardiff prison in Wales in 2012.

The Clink restaurants are open for breakfast and lunch. To book a table at The Clink Restaurant, High Down visit http://www.theclinkcharity.com/high-down/book-now/. To book a table at The Clink Cymru, Cardiff, email cardiff@theclinkrestaurant.com or call +44 (0) 2920 923 130.