Meet the Clink’s Superwomen Head Chefs – Part Two

In this second part of our feature about The Clink Charity, now in its 13th year, Women in the Food Industry Ambassador, Antonia Lloyd, talks to the exceptional women Head Chefs transforming prisoners’ lives through patisserie and gourmet event catering.

The newest enterprise at the Clink Charity is the Bakery at HMP Brixton, an all-male prison in south London, which was set up from scratch last October 2022.  To lead the fine cake charge was Abbie Mallinson, a first timer in a prison environment with a wealth of expertise as former Head Pastry Chef at The Ivy (the original members club). Over the last 6 months she has set about creating a training kitchen that simulates a working environment giving prisoners up to 40 hours a week vocational training in order to reach the required level to succeed in the industry.  Whilst it’s excluded from anyone with a conviction in arson, sexual offence, and kidnap or hostage taking, in terms of cookery skill, it’s open to any of the male prisoners with an interest in developing their patisserie skills with potentially only a little light home baking up their sleeves.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

The Clink Bakery’s Head Chef Trainer, Abbie Mallinson

There have been a few bumps along the way’, says Abbie, Head Chef Trainer at The Clink Bakery which opened just over six months ago at HMP Brixton.  Soon after her first trainee joined, she caught him stealing food.  ‘It’s quite common in prison,’ she explains. ‘ You have to understand that past experiences can come in to play, there’s very limited trust in people. We’re all about giving people second chances.’  After a rocky start he’s become a backbone of her kitchen team: ‘ I think he’s learnt to trust us. He really loves it, it’s like therapy to him and an escape from prison.’  Now 6 months in and Abbie has 8 students in training Monday to Friday for their NVQ in Patisserie and Confectionery Level 2. She’s also just said goodbye to her first graduate who was determined to get his NVQ qualification in record time before his release date. Abbie was impressed by his dedication– he’d had a tough time prior to the training with a history of being in and out of prison – and is thrilled that he’s landed a job at The Social Pantry, a leader in ex-offender employment in the hospitality industry.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

The programme is transformative which is impressive considering the training itself is by no means a piece of cake. At the Bakery, the first step on the NVQ Patisserie course is the challenging chocolate eclair. Abbie patiently takes the guys through the process from choux to fancy craquelin. It can take quite a few attempts before they’re ready to be assessed. The upside is they get to taste what they bake, a real perk for the guys at HMP Brixton.  ‘They’d polish off a whole lemon tart if they could (the third NVQ assessment) – we don’t recommend it’.  Abbie’s trainees also help bake for Clink Events making hundreds of cookies and croissants when required, and at Christmas were responsible for rustling up 2,000 mince pies, which she says ‘were pretty good considering they had no alcohol’. Along with the bakery being alcohol free, Abbie ensures all tools are locked securely in the shadow board, and she keeps temptations at bay – yeast is locked up (with its brewing potential) and chocolate is kept securely in the office.

The Bakery provides bread for the Clink Brixton Restaurant and also helps support Clink Events which was launched 10 years ago and has grown exponentially.  In January they helped the events team cater for the Clink Ball and it was down to the Bakery to provide all the bread – the lads perfected spelt seeded loaves as well as rosemary and garlic focaccia – and the delicate petit fours – a testament to the quality of training and skill level they’re reaching.

Clink Events’ Head Development Chef, Christa Janse van Rensburg

‘There were zero events when I joined 5 years ago, we now have 6 or 7 a week’, says Christa who was previously at Rhubarb Food Design, a luxury event catering business based in London.  As Head Development Chef of Clink Events, Christa has created a professional catering outfit that delivers bespoke menus for clients at top tier London venues like Guildhall, St Paul’s, the Roundhouse, and its newest venue, the Cutty Sark, with all the food prepared by the women trainees at HMP Downview, a women only facility in Surrey. Whether it’s a dinner for 20, a canape party for 100 or an awards dinner for 750, Christa designs the menus for clients and businesses, often with a keen sense of social responsibility, and is unphased that no event or menu is the same.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

Christa is currently working with 12 women serving sentences at the women’s prison HMP Downview – they are training five days a week from 9am to 4pm with a view to passing their NVQ in Professional Cookery level one, two and occasionally the more advanced three: ‘they will train up in all areas of the kitchen from stocks and jus before advancing to veg prep, butchery and fish, and pastry. Butchery and fish is less popular while they all tend to enjoy baking’. Alongside Christa is a permanent staff of four professionals so that they can oversee the ladies for the bespoke menus and ensure that they can deliver to the highest standard for their clients. ‘The biggest challenge’, Christa explains, ‘is when there’s a lockdown and you lose the ladies for up to an hour as they have to return to their cells for a roll call. Someone has gone missing and they need to account for them’. She always plans ahead allowing 2 hours for the refrigerated van to arrive in advance of an event: ‘we’ve never been late’ she declares, ‘and if there’s a danger of being late, my team will pull together to get the refrigerated vans loaded and sent out’.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

One of the perks for the women is not just the training, and a modest prison pay, but the chance to eat staff lunch which they take turns to prepare. ‘The ladies love to make meals they miss from home, we have a lot of jerk chicken, fish and chips, hamburgers – not necessarily the healthiest always, but it’s a chance for us all to sit together and forget prison life for the day’.  The training can offer a launch pad for serious change: ‘No one has ever believed in them before. We give them support and kindness, sometimes for the first time’. 

Both Abbie at The Bakery and Christa in Events are commendable for their ability to balance the running of a professional kitchen with a rehabilitation programme for their trainees with stellar results. Where a restaurant kitchen may have a regularity to it,’ the challenge is to keep adapting’, according to Abbie,  ‘because every day is different’.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

To support the charity and this vital work which achieves an impressive 65.6% reduction in re-offending, consider a Clink Event or visit one of the Clink Restaurants for their newly launched spring menu.

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