I had the pleasure of writing an article about the kitchen and the catering manager, Felix, at HMP Brixton for April's edition of Inside Time. Brixton is one of a kind when it comes to prison food and I wanted to share my experience of what they do so well. Inside Time is only circulated in prisons, so I've republished the original article below. Enjoy!
‘Time we started seeing good food prepared and served in prison to improve the quality of incarcerated life’
When I found out that HMP Brixton came out top as the best men’s prison for food in the country, I was pleased – but I wasn’t surprised. Last year, I visited the kitchen at Brixton for the first of what would be many visits over the months to come. I met Felix Tetteh, the catering manager, who greeted me with open arms, pristine chef’s whites and a spoon tucked in his top pocket.
I have been running Food Behind Bars, my national campaign to improve prison food, for more than three years. I truly believe that food is one of life’s most powerful tools for change – and nowhere could this have a bigger impact than in prison. I’ve visited prisons up and down the country, spent time with catering managers, spoken about the subject in the UK and abroad and surrounded myself with the stories of those who’ve experienced prison food first-hand.
But I’d never met anyone like Felix. His food is shaped by his philosophy of respect, care and bloody good cooking. “Absolutely anyone can end up in prison” he told me, as I stepped into his kitchen for the first time. Although it seemed like a throwaway comment, I later realised Felix applies this belief to every dish he creates. He’s not cooking prison food – he’s cooking food he’d be proud to serve to his wife and grandkids, that just happens to be created within the logistical and financial parameters prison assigns.
Once I’d been around Felix’s unadulterated positivity and soaked up the energy of his kitchen, I couldn’t quite tear myself away. I did a shift in the kitchen, where I saw the fresh curry pastes, French kitchen classics, home-made pizza doughs and jerk spice rubs come to life. I hung out in his office, with one of his trusted admin assistants, who just happens to be a prisoner. I followed him down to the wings, where lunchtime on the servery was a fun and lively part of the day where incidents were rare.
I’ve met many catering managers, visited tons of kitchens, and seen the good, the bad and the ugly of prison food. Brixton comes out on top because Felix doesn’t just consider the end plate of food (and whether it comes in budget or can be cooked for 800 men) he considers the kitchen, its workers, and the people they’re feeding with the highest respect.
His kitchen runs like the professional kitchen of a West End restaurant, and its staff learn valuable skills. One former kitchen worker and ex-prisoner at Brixton told me: “I truly felt like a colleague and part of a team that was delivering such high quality food. This has been a real boost to my self-confidence and self-image shortly before release.”
Eating is a physical act and food has a physical effect on us. But I’m far more interested in the emotional impact. With Food Behind Bars, I’ve come to realise this has a far more powerful effect. This isn’t simply about the nutritional value of your dinner (although that is important), but how it’s eaten, how it’s presented, how it makes you feel and what it makes you think of. When done right, like in Brixton’s case, dinnertimes perk up the day and lift your spirits. When done wrong, poor quality prison food degrades your mental and physical wellbeing further.
People like Felix make me believe that achieving my vision of tasty, nutritious and varied food in prison is possible. We are even collaborating on recipes – next month we’ll be introducing Meat-Free Days to the Brixton menu, with new, exciting recipes I’ve designed specifically for his kitchen. On a wider scale, I’m working with a group of 5 chefs, restaurant owners and cookbook writers (and even an ex-Bake Off contestant). They have each created a unique prison menu recipe which we are hoping to trial on the menu of a few men’s and women’s prisons very soon. I’ve got plenty more ideas up my sleeve and Brixton continues to influence my work.
It’s time we started seeing decent quality food in prison as paramount to a decent quality of life in prison. Brixton – as the statistics show – is doing it better than anyone else. It’s my mission to ensure that in the future, they’re not the only ones.