High Down Prison's catering manager, Alberto Crisci, won the BBC's Food and Farming Best Dinner Man award last week. He talks to Emily Manson about his work at the prison.
How long have you been working at High Down Prison? Nearly 11 years. I started [in London] at the Mirabelle restaurant and in West End hotels, then I owned a coffee shop and wine bar for eight years. I just wanted a change and High Down appealed to me. I started working as chef but, since then, I've taken over.
What type of food do you cook for the prisoners? They have a pre-select menu at the start of the week, with four choices at lunch and six for dinner, which include options, such as vegetarian, healthy, vegan and religious requirements. Lunch is always simpler - today, it was spicy chicken in pitta bread with coleslaw or vegetable stir-fry, beef-and-onion pie or pasta with tomato sauce. For dinner, they'll get Chana curry with home-made roti bread, chicken curry, home-made steak-and-kidney pie, boiled-egg salad or halal lamb-burger with choka sauce.
What makes your operation different? We work for the prison service, not contractors. Because we're in-house, the prison's food is so much better than what you find in schools or hospitals. We get only 1.68 for three meals per person per day, but we take good food seriously. It's up to schools and hospitals to take healthy food more seriously.
Why did you introduce NVQs? We've got a brilliant, fully equipped kitchen here, as we produce 15,000 hot meals a day. We need prisoners to help us do it so, if they have to cook, why not give them a chance to gain a qualification and the possibility of getting a job when they leave?
What are your future plans? We're planning a new 100-seat restaurant inside the prison, with the general public as customers. The prisoners will interact with the guests and we'll introduce a food service NVQ. Guests will still have to be escorted in and out of the prison, but that's part of the experience.
How is working in a prison different? You go home at night but the prisoners don't. During the day, we're all working together and we have to balance maintaining a professional distance and having a mutual respect for each other. Security is an issue - we have to account for all knives at all times and, at the end of the shift, we have to search the prisoners, which is quite difficult to do with respect.
How would you counter the prejudice employers might have about hiring ex-cons? It's easy to stereotype, but they have real lives and real problems. If they've made a mistake, served their time and done so constructively, once they're released they should be treated fairly and allowed to put it behind them and get on with their life.