The founder of The Clink, Alberto Crisci, chats to Ting Dalton about expansion, his graduates and how he measures success
If you’re local then no doubt you’ll have heard of HMP High Down and its revered restaurant, The Clink, where diners are served fresh, seasonal produce and fine-dining dishes such as roast tenderloin of pork wrapped in prosciutto, and roasted salmon sashimi. Opened back in May 2009, it was the first public restaurant set within the walls of a working prison and staffed by offenders training for qualifications in food and hospitality.
Since then, founder Alberto Crisci’s hopes of improving society through rehabilitation has seen the charity expand across the UK – there are now an additional three restaurants in Brixton, London, Cardiff and Styal in Cheshire, with another three sites in the pipeline. Meanwhile, The Clink gardens at HMP Send are giving female prisoners the opportunity to gain practical experience and NVQs in horticulture. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and a new production kitchen is about to be built in HMP Downview, where another 30 women will be trained at any one time.
When I meet Alberto, he comes across as relaxed and only too happy to discuss the successes of his former graduates as well as what the future holds. However, don’t let his laid-back demeanour fool you, the former catering manager, born and raised in Epsom, was a 2016 finalist in the prestigious Basque Culinary World Prize for chefs who have helped make a better society through food.
He is inspirational in bringing to life his vision of helping offenders to break the cycle of crime by giving them nationally recognised qualifications and putting them into paid employment. In fact, The Clink was awarded Best Charity in the Charity Awards last year, too, so even though Alberto admits that they’re not quite at their target of training 1,000 graduates per year, they’re making good progress.
“Our next big project is Clink Events. Even though it was launched three years ago, we weren’t promoting it because we had to cater using the existing kitchens. There was only so much we could take on. But now we’re building the new production kitchen at Downview, we’re marketing with a vengeance,” smiles Alberto. “We’ve actually just been awarded a contract for three years at the Guildhall to be one of their designated caterers. It’s exciting.”
Even before The Clink was established, as the catering manager of High Down, Alberto was already training offenders and trying to get them into jobs because he recognised the potential of the prisoners working with him. But then he kept seeing them come back.
“A lot of the people we work with have been brought up in care and have never known the security of a family. Although I’m not making excuses for them, you can look back and see the reasons why they turned to crime. And you can see that if they had been brought up differently and supported, they probably could have avoided getting into bad situations,” insists Alberto.
It’s the support that goes some way in ensuring that Clink graduates are 41 percent less likely to re-offend and as part of their five-step programme – recruit, train, support, and employ – mentoring is key to that success.
“Probably the most important aspect of what we do in terms of them not re-offending again is the support,” says Alberto. “Because they could be the best chef, walk out with a really good qualification, however, if they’re not offered the chance to work and they have nowhere to live, they will probably end up back in prison.”
Engaging with prisoners three months before their release, mentors are on hand to help them with rehabilitation for up to a year – longer if they need it. “We’re still in regular contact with many of the graduates and they still come back and work with us on events, some from even when The Clink first opened,” he tells me.
When I ask him if there are any ex-offenders who have gone on to become successful since graduating from The Clink’s programme, Alberto beams, like a father who is proud of his children’s endeavours. “We have one chap who has been out now for five years. He’s the main carer of his child but he works full-time and is currently at the RAC in Epsom. He’s doing so well there. We also had a graduate who went to work in the kitchens of RADA and he openly admitted himself that he was never going to be a chef. So they put him front-of-house because he is a people person. But he kept pestering them for an audition… He’s just completed a three-year scholarship and currently rehearsing for a play at The National Theatre,” he replies. “You see, it’s not just about the training. It’s about giving them the skills and confidence to go out into the world – and the support if they have a wobble. And it’s also about changing people’s attitudes towards offenders.”
Alberto says that the best way to do this is to get paying customers into the restaurants, because then their perceptions are changed naturally and by themselves. “One of the most common questions when people come in is to ask which ones are the prisoners,” laughs Alberto. “Which is the best thing to hear, because already, without them realising it, they’ve just told me they think the prisoners are just like everybody else. They’re dressed in professional smart uniforms as they would be in any other restaurant or hotel. I’ve got them then!”
When The Clink started, it was Alberto who had to do everything, from the training and cooking to taking reservations. His role has changed dramatically since and, as the charity’s brand director, it is his job to make sure The Clink doesn’t lose sight of what it’s trying to achieve. “The most rewarding thing for me isn’t seeing them emerge from training and hold down a job,” he says. “What a lot of people don’t realise is these people have families, and they’re not the offenders. Yet they are shocked and completely affected by this person being in prison. It’s amazing when I get a reaction from a family member who tells me that I’ve given them their son/wife/dad back. That to me, is the most meaningful way of measuring our success.”
The Clink High Down, HMP High Down, High Down Ln, Sutton. www.theclinkcharity.org