Step up to the plates

Fancy a top-class lunch? Try the best restaurant in Cheshire. It might not be what you expect

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The number one restaurant in Cheshire, according to Trip Advisor, is based in the leafy village of Styal. The food is contemporary, fresh and seasonal. Diners this month were treated to dishes like pickled beetroot salad, Indian spiced risotto, and lamb with saffron dumplings. 

As you’d expect from an eatery that has won the favour of Trip Advisor’s notoriously fussy reviewers, the service is also excellent. During the busy lunchtime rush, waitresses are friendly and attentive, while the open kitchen allows a glimpse of the hardworking chefs.

This isn’t the newest opening of a commercial mogul or celebrated TV chef – it’s actually the restaurant of a women’s prison, and all the staff are prisoners. The Clink at HMP Styal is part of a nationwide charity that allows prisoners to work in on-site restaurants, gaining skills, qualifications and self-confidence and earning a real salary, similar to what they’d get paid in the outside world. The goal is to break the vicious cycle of crime that so many prisoners get trapped in.

With no support system and poor employment prospects, huge numbers of offenders return to old habits. The figures are dismaying: almost half of all adults are reconvicted within one year of release. This rises to 60 per cent among inmates who have served less than a year. Some prisons even report an 80 per cent reoffending rate. This costs taxpayers up to £13 billion every year, according to the National Audit Office. Increasingly, organisations across the north are thinking in new and innovative ways to try to fix the system.

The restaurant at Styal opened in April this year. Thirty prisoners work there, half in the kitchen gaining their NVQs in professional cookery, and the other half at front of house, studying food and beverage service. Like many jobs, they have an interview and a probation period – and go on to work 40-hour weeks. At the beginning of a busy shift the staff all sit down and eat lunch together.

One of the staff recently got a job as a chef at Northcote Manor, which has a Michelin star

“It is quite manic – it’s very hard work and we’re always busy,” says Stacy, who is one year into a three-year sentence at Styal and has been working in the kitchen since May. “There’s a lot of prep involved. But I enjoy all of it. I want to get the qualification in being a chef, because when I leave here I want to set up my own business catering for weddings.”

The scheme is so popular in the prison that there’s now a waiting list to apply. “We train them in all the skills, including customer service and complaint handling,” says general manager Wendy Unsworth. “It’s also about their personal skills, their confidence, which is a massive thing.”

Three months prior to prisoners’ release, they are given a support worker who helps with securing work and housing, and offers weekly mentoring for up to 12 months after they leave prison. “If they have a problem they can pick up the phone and talk to us,” says Unsworth. “Which is great because sometimes they’re having a bad day and just need someone to talk to.”

One of the prisoners recently got a job as a pastry chef at Northcote Manor in the Ribble Valley, which has a Michelin star, while others have gone on to work at Whitbread, the UK’s largest hospitality company (it owns Costa and Premier Inn, among others). Across the four restaurants – the others are based in Cardiff, Surrey and Brixton – the Clink Charity has achieved an impressive drop in reoffending, down to a rate of 12.5 per cent.

Why is it so successful? “It’s great team work – everyone enjoys what they do,” says Stacy. “Everyone wants to progress once they’ve left prison. It’s also that in here, you’re not treated like a prisoner. Obviously in the prison you are. But in the restaurant you’re treated like a member of society, like you were before you came away. You don’t get spoken to like you’re a prisoner – you get treated fairly. Everyone’s classed as an individual. Any help that you need, they give you. It’s really good.”

32 - The Clink Restaurant at HMP Styal, Cheshirergb
The Clink restaurant in Cheshire

Unsworth echoes this. “The biggest thing that comes out of it is they’re treated like normal people. It’s a normal job – they get given respect. As soon as they walk through the door, it’s a normal high street restaurant, and they forget they are prisoners. That’s what it’s all about: they want to be normal and to be given a second chance. The support they receive is a big thing for them, because a lot of them don’t have that support on the outside.”

The Clink is not the only organisation taking an innovative approach to rehabilitation. In the North East, where the reoffending rate is higher than the national average, prisoners are being helped back into work through the Oswin Project. The charity works with employers across Northumberland to develop opportunities for ex-offenders – or “Oswinners”, as they’re dubbed. These have included work on construction sites, bakeries, farms and furniture factories.

One prisoner had the highest youth offending record in Sunderland. Now, thanks to the organisation’s help, he runs his own painting and decorating service. “He had decided he couldn’t go on living like this. He couldn’t keep going in and out of prison,” says Rev Fiona Sample, who launched the programme in 2011 after visiting local prisons and seeing inmates “in despair”.

“I have an absolute dislike of my generation – people in their middle years and later – who grumble about society and never try to change what they’re grumbling about,” she says. “I think it’s all of our responsibility. If we see something we’re shocked or disturbed by, to try, in however small a way, to change it. It’s no good saying things aren’t as they should be without trying to be a catalyst for change.”

Holding down a job has a significant impact on whether someone will commit another crime, explains Sample. Indeed, all of the men supported by the project so far have not reoffended. “Our key is selection and mentoring within prison and then taking them outside. We’ve done everything from buying boots and kit for people to picking them up.”

Sample says the support works because it grants ex-offenders financial independence and structure to their days. “Many of them have never been given opportunities in their lives. They’ve been told they’re useless, hopeless and can’t do anything. Our most successful lad, the one who set up a business, said that he loves being able to give back to society. He said: ‘I’ve been a taker since I was a child. Now I’m a giver and that is a great incentive.’”

The Merseyside Offender Mentoring Project too, seeks to capitalise on giving prisoners a basic sense of purpose – something the rest of us might take for granted in our day-to-day lives.

The programme draws on the real-life experience of everyday people to mentor prisoners and ex-offenders. Volunteers meet with their mentees once a week, setting goals that help them reintegrate into society.

“We offer a positive structure, a role model,” says development officer David Hurst. “We’re the angel on their shoulders. We teach budgeting skills, we’ll help them get out of bed in the morning to go to a doctor’s appointment. We listen to offenders, we talk to them, we engage them like other services don’t. We ask them what they want and how we can help.”

And it’s paying off – the reoffending rate for men reached by the scheme is less than 20 per cent, compared with an average of 58 per cent in the Merseyside area.

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