The clink of keys and cell doors was replaced with the clink of cutlery and glasses in Cork Prison for a time on Tuesday night as it became the first Irish prison to host a pop-up restaurant.
Six inmates who have completed its new practical culinary skills programme cooked a slap-up four-course meal for 56 specially invited guests, including 22 hoteliers and restaurateurs, who were seated in the prison’s education unit and on B3 landing as part of the unique 'The Open Door' event.
All six inmates have worked in the prison’s kitchen, serving three meals a day to up to 260 inmates. But tonight’s meal was a serious step-up in quality and pressure, with a starter platter featuring roast butternut and chilli shot with pancetta croutons, smoked salmon with lemon creme fraiche, and tomato bruschetta.
A duo of pork was the star of the mains platter. It featured oven-roasted loin of pork, coated with mustard and herbs, served with a tomato and tarragon sauce, and triple cooked glazed pork belly, served with fondant potatoes and roast root vegetables flavoured with honey, herbs, and sea salt. The vegetarian option was chickpea and wild mushroom jalfrezi, with braised rice.
One of the prisoner chefs, William, 35, who is due for release on Thursday, said: “We normally cook chicken curry, bacon and cabbage, steak, pork chops — you take it as you come. But this tastes a lot better than what I’ve been eating.”
Although he had some cooking skills before he was jailed, he said he has learned a huge amount on the course, including knife skills.
"I was very slow with a knife but I picked up a lot on how to work the knife faster. I would like to continue on the outside."
Among the dinner guests was a potential employer from his native town, a venue he hopes to get work in soon.
Fellow inmate, Paddy, 18, who worked as a full-time chef before he was jailed, also said he hopes to pursue a career in cheffing upon his release.
“The course was a refreshment, getting back into the kitchen, picking up your skills again rather than just sitting in the cells. I upgraded my knife skills and learned to work in that kind of a kitchen environment. It’s been great,” he said.
The event was organised by the Irish Prison Service in association with Munster Technological University's (MTU) Department of Tourism and Hospitality, the Irish Association for Social Inclusion Opportunities (IASIO), which helps find accommodation and work for newly released prisoners, and Cork Education and Training Board (CETB), which has been running education programmes in Cork Prison for some 40 years.
The culinary course was developed after MTU ran a taster lecture series in the prison. Several inmates expressed an interest to learn more about culinary skills and the pilot culinary programme was set up.
Six selected inmates, described as model prisoners, attended the education unit twice a week for eight weeks where they were tutored by MTU culinary lecturer JJ Healy and by a home economics teacher with the CETB prison education unit.
Tonight, Mr Healy oversaw the inmates in the training unit’s kitchen as they cooked up a storm for the invited guests, including the governor of Cork Prison, Peter O’Brien, and the president of MTU, Maggie Cusack.
Mr O’Brien said the course has taught the prisoners that they can work in a professional restaurant kitchen.
“People are sent to prison as a punishment and the punishment is the loss of liberty,” he said. “But when you’re inside, you have the opportunity to address your offending behaviour, you have the opportunity to leave prison a better person.
“And if you leave prison a better person than what you came into it, and if you go back out and don’t commit a crime, then we are reducing the amount of victims.
“It is all about leaving prison with a structured release plan to either go onto further education or work or training so that we break that cycle. That is the positive story that we need to let people know about after tonight.”
Prof Cusack said as well as building inmates' confidence, the course could also help the hospitality industry address a staffing shortage.
“We are absolutely sure that the lessons learned here mean that this could be rolled out in other prison settings,” she said.
IASIO operations manager, Barry Owens, said Bórd Fáilte found earlier this year that the shortage of skilled staff is one of the biggest barriers to the sector’s recovery from the pandemic, with almost a third of hospitality businesses surveyed at risk of closure until they could find those staff.
“There is huge untapped labour here in the criminal justice system and it is worth looking beyond the conviction to see the person and to see maybe there are solutions for them here,” he said.
IASIO can provide direct advice to potential employers with concerns about hiring ex-prisoners, he said.
John Fitzgibbons, the director of further education and training with CETB, said the vast majority of inmates who participate in an education or training programme in prison gain something significant.
“For some, it may be the ability to read and write but they also gain confidence, they gain the ability to see opportunities for themselves,” he said.
“This also gives employers the ability to see that these are men who made mistakes but they have now gained a skill and they could become a very very valuable addition to their workforce when they come out.
“They need somebody to take a bit of a chance and put some faith in them, that the person coming out is a person with skills, not a prisoner with skills.”
Noel Murray, the head of MTU’s Department of Tourism and Hospitality, said not only has the course developed prisoners’ skills, it has given them an insight into the opportunities that are there for them post-release. And he said it has opened the eyes of employers to the potential of the talent pool in prisons.
“We are very aware of the critical shortages of chefs in the industry which I think is going to be really seen as the season progresses so this is something different, it is a talent pool that hasn’t been looked at in the past and it’s an opportunity for these guys to have something when they leave,” he said.