Inside tips on haute cuisine

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
A prison caterer who has trained offenders to be skilled chefs has won a national award.

Al Crisci, catering manager at High Down prison, won a BBC Radio Food and Farming award last week, after judges praised his restaurant-quality food.

Mr Crisci's commitment to training was also lauded, as he took prisoners off menial cleaning duties and encouraged them to cook meals at the Surrey prison instead.

Dr Margaret Rayman, one of the judges, said: "It was the most impressive of those visited for the sheer quality of the food - as good as you would get in a restaurant - for a daily budget of pound;1.68."

Mr Crisci became catering manager in 2000, when all the cooking was carried out by civilian staff, and prisoners did the cleaning.

With the prison service trying to encourage more training, he created an NVQ programme in food preparation, cooking and hygiene.

"I was really passionate about it," he said. "The reaction was really positive. It's like a knock-on effect: if you give them responsibility, they thrive on it and their whole behaviour becomes more professional."

As well as feeding the 740 prisoners with two hot meals a day, ranging from chickpea curry to beef and onion pie, the prisoners also cook a four-course dinner for potential employers and other guests four times a year.

Porridge is off the menu, as guests are served dishes such as battered courgette flowers or sea bass, pancetta and broad beans to fulfil the NVQ requirements and show off the prisoners' skills.

Peter Dawson, governor of the prison, said it was not the only jail to train offenders in catering. "What's different about Al is he's taken it to an extraordinary degree by any prison's standards," he said.

Over the next year, the prison also hopes to build a working restaurant for offenders to improve their cooking.

Mr Crisci said: "It was a total shock and surprise to win. Since then, I've realised how important it was: they are awards for the big wide world of catering, not just a prison award or an institutional award."

The award was presented by Jamie Oliver, chosen as food personality of the year in the wake of his school meals campaign.

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