Meet the Superwomen Head Chefs at the top of the Clink

Women in the Food Industry Ambassador, Antonia Lloyd, talks to the exceptional women Head Chefs transforming prisoners’ lives.

In the heart-warming film Paddington 2, we witness prisoners being transformed into a professional brigade of patisserie pros: Paddington and his motley crew, in their pastel pink striped prison uniforms, throw all their energy and skill into creating sublime marmalade sandwiches and elegant tea cakes bringing joy and smiles to their inmates.

Photo by Holly Dwyer

It turns out that this is so much more than a culinary dream; it is one of the goals of The Clink Charity, now in its 13th year, which works in partnership with HM Prison and Probation Service in England and Wales to give prisoners new skills and qualifications through culinary training. The Charity isn’t just a patisserie outfit either, in England and Wales they have 3 Clink restaurants, 2 gardens, 1 bakery, 1 catering company and 29 prison kitchens; all of them are situated within working prisons and the food is prepared by prisoners in training. Its goal is clear: to reduce reoffending by training and rehabilitation.

In place of the rather unsupportive chef inmate Knuckles McGinty played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson in Paddington 2, the Clink have some exceptional women Head Chefs and trainers who bring their wealth of experience from the food industry to support prisoners through their NVQ City and Guilds training which give inmates a second chance. ‘It makes you feel good to see how they change and grow in confidence’, says Christa Janse Van Rensburg, Head Development Chef at Clink Events. ‘No one has ever believed in them before – we give them support and kindness’.  There are strict criteria to be accepted on to the training – it’s excluded from arsonists, sexual offenders, and anyone with a previous conviction of hostage taking or kidnap – and offered to prisoners with their release date in view: a maximum of 2 years and minimum of 3 months left on their sentence.  Alongside the training, the prisoners are given support with their life beyond prison providing advice on accommodation, jobs and mentoring post release. It’s no surprise that the Clink Charity have impressive success rates: prisoners are 49.6% less likely to reoffend by entering the training programme.

The Clink Restaurant, HMP Brixton’s Head Chef Ellie Shaw

Photography by Holly Dwyer

Ellie Shaw has been at The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton, a local men’s prison, for over 6 years and in January became Head Chef. ‘It used to be that a couple of the lads did the training, now they have a maximum capacity of 35 trainees with 16 in the kitchen and the rest doing Front of House hospitality training.’ Front of house they do the NVQ in Food & Beverage Service while in the kitchen they tackle the Professional Cookery NVQ. Known as the best job in the prison, the trainees start off on pot wash, advance to starter and veg, before being given the responsibility of the main course and helping on the pass. Pastry and making desserts is also popular with the guys. Across the three Clink Restaurants in south London (HMP Brixton), Surrey (HMP High Down) and Cheshire (HMP Styal), there’s a set menu for every season which the head chefs take turn to create. Ellie is particularly excited as her spring menu is launching with the promise of seasonal produce – asparagus, spring peas, purple sprouting broccoli, wild garlic and rhubarb, wherever possible supported by the Clink Gardens. The trainees get to the stage of being well rehearsed in dishes and this new menu will mean they rotate sections and learn new skills for their NVQ.

In terms of running a successful restaurant, when they first join, Ellie explains, ‘it’s not like having a commis chef join a kitchen’. Ellie has to train the lads up for service as terms like ‘check on’ or ‘service’ may be unfamiliar to them. At least one and often two inmates will be put on every section for service with her professional team slotting in around them. ‘There are some amazing guys running their sections’, she says proudly, which is a good thing as they may serve up to 70 covers on Thursday’s gourmet dinner night. Situated in the old governor’s house dating back to 1819, the Brixton Clink Restaurant is a place where  prisoners learn, engage with the public and take their first steps towards a new life, but it’s also been awarded a TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award in 2022, placing the restaurant in the top 10% worldwide.  For Ellie, it’s high time it was recognised on the London food scene.

The Clink Restaurant, HMP Styal’s Head Chef Portia Ruzario

Photo of Portia by Holly Dwyer

Head Chef Portia at HMP Styal, an all women facility in Wilmslow Cheshire, has been at the Clink Restaurant for 5 years and brings a wealth of experience from establishments such as London’s The Wolseley. Housed in a converted chapel just outside the prison, the restaurant is incredibly busy serving both breakfast and lunch Wednesday to Sunday sometimes for large groups of up to 40 people, and afternoon tea on Fridays and Saturdays with sandwiches, scones, and even Portuguese pastel de natas. Currently there are only 5 women in her prisoner brigade (she can take a maximum of 12) and with only one other trained professional beneath her, there’s clearly a lot for Portia to oversee.

Portia finds the teaching very rewarding and in the last few months, she has been visited by several graduates of the programme who have entered the industry including one lady who has even set up her own catering company. For now, Portia is focussed on the spring menu that represents new recipes, fresh ingredients, and more skills for her women trainees. She admits that the role has changed her as a person, ‘I’m more patient and understanding. On the outside, it’s easy to judge but you don’t know the full story’.

Photography by Holly Dwyer

Both Ellie and Portia agree that the main challenge is managing the balance between a successful restaurant catering for up to 80 covers five days a week whilst training up the prisoners effectively. The hospitality industry has only 19% of women chefs but those that make it are, undoubtedly, to be reckoned with: these superwomen are not only running successful restaurants and delivering bespoke events but also empowering prisoners and transforming lives through patience and trust.

To support this exceptional charity and these incredible women, consider booking in for the Spring Menu at your nearest Clink Restaurant and encourage businesses to consider Clink Events for their next corporate event.

This is not just a Paddington pipe dream, this is real, transformative change.

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