WHERE can you get a quality three-course meal for little more than a fiver? It’s all a bit hush hush but the truth about the Secret Diner, Sudbury Prison’s restaurant, is now well and truly out. NIGEL POWLSON tucks in . . .
THERE have been a few raised eyebrows when coach parties on mystery tours have turned up at the doors of HMP Sudbury. After all it’s not the first place you would expect to be taken to for a slap-up three-course meal. But very few visitors go away unhappy and most of them quickly come back.
The Secret Diner is situated just outside the main gates and acts as the staff mess for prison officers but it’s also open to the public and, without ever advertising, it has built up a big customer base – from coach loads of pensioners and people booking Christmas work lunches to holidaymakers and passing truckers.
Adrian Hill, the vocational trainer for catering at Sudbury, says: “Some days I come in here and it is heaving. We are always taking bookings, lots for Christmas and I have just taken one for April.
“The Sudbury breakfast is also very popular with passing truckers. We aren’t really open for breakfast but we feed them if they come in. I have also had people on their way to the airport asking ‘Is there any chance of a breakfast to set us up for the day?’ They are going abroad and need some ‘proper’ food before they jet off.
“It has just grown and grown. There’s the novelty aspect of it as well. We get these mystery tours coming and they are often very surprised when they find out they are having a meal in a prison.”
So the word is out – and clearly visitors know a good thing when they see it and taste it.
But the Secret Diner has a more important role, in preparing prisoners for a return to the outside world, giving them skills that will help them secure work in a competitive job market.
Adrian says: “The focus is very much on reducing re-offending. We aim to give them the skills they need to get a job in the hospitality industry. Not just a qualification but also the experience that goes with that by working here. That can be in front of house, or cooking and we are aiming to expand into coffee with a barrista service. Coffee is an up and coming industry and those skills will give them another string to their bow.
“You look at the job market and there are always posts in catering, in cafes and pub restaurants. We teach up to an NVQ Level two which gives them the skill to produce fresh food to the industry standard. If we aim higher then that the job market shrinks, so that’s our target.
“Some people start with no skills, some have done a bit of work in other prisons, others already have a qualification in catering but we can give them the experience.
“It’s a ‘privilege’ job in here because it’s outside the wire as well as being interesting. There’s always a waiting list.”
Adrian has 14 prisoners working at the diner catering for up to 100 people on a normal day as well as taking special bookings catering for up to 120.
He says: “What we find is that the people who go on home leave to see their families take those skills with them. One guy said to me the other day, ‘My wife is loving this as I’m coming home and cooking for her’. So it’s not just about getting a job, it’s also that interaction and getting back into family life with something new to offer.
“We get WIs, gardening clubs, luncheon clubs, cycling groups and they are all amazed at the standards of the service and how helpful the prisoners have been towards them and there’s real buzz about the place. I also see that the busier we are the happier everyone is.
“We don’t advertise, so returning business is your gauge. It’s also word of mouth and every week we have new people turning up who have heard good things about us.”
All the food has to pass the taste inspection test.
“I have to taste everything before it goes out,” says Adrian. “That’s part of the training, it’s no good just cooking it and chucking it on a hot plate. They don’t always get it right, but they learn from the mistakes and make it better each time they do it.”
Prices are very reasonable, especially for the standard of food, but the diner does still pay its way.
“We can’t afford to make a loss,” says Adrian. “We have to pay for the qualifications.”
Liz Holland, head of learning and skills, believes there are lots of benefits of The Secret Diner.
She says: “The guys in here are also meeting the public, discussing and talking with people and that’s part of the rehabilitation as well.
“It’s breaking barriers down. We are a resettlement prison and it’s about getting them back to the community. So people come in enjoy a meal but they often go away having changed their perceptions.”
Adrian adds: “That works both ways as well. We have prisoners who come here who have lengthy sentences who haven’t had contact with the public for a number of years. This gets them back into that. They start off hiding in the back washing the pots but they soon come out, start talking to the public and then I can’t get them back to the sink.”
Liz says that prisoners’ attitudes to learning cookery have also changed.
She says: “With all the cookery programmes on TV, like Masterchef and Bake Off, there are lot of male cooks and I think the market has opened up more for them. It’s also not just cafes that want these skills, there are care homes, staff canteens, it’s a big job markets and it turns over quite quickly.
“Other prisons do have a staff mess but often they are not on the same scale as this or they are inside the prison and not open to the public. We are lucky that this is just outside the gate and therefore can be open to the public. It fits with what we do here. We think it’s very special and more and more people seem to like it.”
So basically, a not so Secret Diner.
“Clearly somebody is telling somebody somewhere,” laughs Adrian “We are certainly very proud of it.”
ON THE MENU
Starters: Cream of parsnip soup, fan of melon.
Mains: Plaice in breadcrumbs, macaroni cheese, chicken and chickpea curry, turkey kiev
Desserts: Crème brulee
Starters are £1.20, main course are £3, desserts are £1.50
Adrian is proud of the food served at the diner and gets good feedback from both prison staff and customers.
He says: “We change the menu fit to in with what’s needed for the NVQs but we always have a curry on a Thursday, fish and chips on a Friday, a carvery joint on a Tuesday. All the desserts are homemade, we don’t buy anything in. We use fresh produce as much as we can, we buy very little in that’s frozen.
Liz adds: “We are very good at desserts and it’s a very popular day when the cheesecakes are on. We also always do healthier options such as jacket potatoes and panninis.
“What’s good about here is that in a lot of places all they do now is do things in the microwave but we make it all from scratch. The lads have to otherwise they won’t get their qualifications.”
The Sudbury Diner is open from 11.30am to 1pm Monday to Friday and also takes group and party bookings at other times. Call 01283 584000.
Sudbury was set up as an American Air Force hospital in 1944, part of the preparations for the D-Day Landings. It was turned into a category D prison in 1948 and has been ever since.
As a resettlement prison, giving prisoners new skills is very important and it has links with Milton Keynes College.
Liz Holland says: “All prisons have a college in them funded by the government. They employ teams of people to deliver qualifications across the prison, not just catering but bricklaying, ITC, English things like that as well.”