3 male chefs working in the kitchen

What is it like to be a Chef in a prison?

Being a Chef is difficult no matter what restaurant you work in but what is it like to cook and serve meals in their thousands when your kitchen is behind high walls, secure doors and more barbed wire then you can shake your spatula at?

We spoke to Chef Trainer, Kim Chapman to get the inside scoop on what it is like to be a Chef in the challenging prison environment of HMP The Mount.

Kim is a Blue Arrow Chef on the front line not only cooking for over a thousand prisoners during every shift, but also training prisoners to be Chef’s so they have access to work upon release.

Kim’s long standing experience, his unfaltering commitment to his trade and his desire to get the very best out of everyone in the kitchen is what makes him a truly remarkable Blue Arrow Chef, we really could have spoken with Kim all day.

Where do you work?

I currently work at HMP The Mount, a prison in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire.

What is your current job title?

I am a Chef trainer which means I cook and help to train the prisoners to be Chefs taking them through NVQ qualifications.

How long have you been a Chef?

Well, I am 63 now and I went into the kitchen straight from school so I have been a Chef for some time now. I started in the kitchen really young and worked my way up over the years doing the qualifications needed. I focused on getting as much experience as possible by working in various kitchens, travelling, working on cruise ships and in event catering.

Is a prison a challenging environment to work in?

I thought I knew what to expect but when I got here, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about the reality inside the walls. As a Chef Trainer I come into contact with prisoners every day, they are in the kitchen with me learning to cook. The security requirements and rules make it a little challenging especially when it comes to using equipment, but we have to find ways to work around it, security and safety comes first.

Did you receive any special training to work in the Prison?

You do the usual induction training for prison safety and rules of course and you have a radio, so you are trained on that but as a civilian you are not put through any of the defensive training that the officers do. While the Officers are not in the Kitchen with us, they are close by.

Did you need any specific experience other than cooking to be a Chef trainer?

I have an ‘on job’ training certificate, I got it 30 years ago from a previous work placement, but you can go online and get one now.

What does your daily work routine entail?

First off, I go in and drink a coffee. Then we have a daily briefing where I am told about any problems there have been or any security issues that I need to be aware of. Then I finalise the board that shows all of the job allocations then off we go, cooking lunch and dinner for the prisoners and learning skills along the way.

How many people do you have working and training in the kitchen on an average day?

Normally up to 30 prisoners are in the kitchen with me but some go off sick and some go on alternative courses. Less is better because I can spend more time with each of them teaching them specific skills.

How can you teach when you also have meals to prepare?

Some of them don’t want to learn to be a Chef so they can have a career, they want to be in the kitchen because it is a good job while they are doing time. For the ones who really do want to learn, teaching can be difficult due to the type of cooking we have to do, they are not really going to get the full training they need but it is a good start. Generally, they learn the basics but it is really more about learning how to be at work and the discipline that goes with it.

How receptive are the prisoners to learning the trade?

Some of the trainees are really passionate; it’s not just cooking you know it’s talking to them. One lad called Jamie was a real star, when he was released, I hope he went on to have a great career, it gives me a great sense of job satisfaction to know that it has provided him with a bright future.

How do you cater for so many people in an environment like a prison?

It’s the facilities that help us to cook in such large qualities. I am used to catering for big events, I did Vinny Jones wedding once and that was pretty big. Most events I worked on in my previous work were big outdoor events so if you can cook up a storm in a field with no power or running water you can do anything.

Would you say working in a prison is a good choice for building experience?

For me being at the end of my career it has been an amazing experience, one that I would encourage anyone who has done their days in a busy commercial kitchen environment. For a young lad who is after a career as a Chef shouldn’t look to start here, they should look to be here much later once they have learned the trade.

What skills or knowledge do you feel you have gained from working in a prison?

The things I have gained actually have nothing to do with cooking, they would be empathy, understanding, the importance of authority and above all else, patience. I was never one to give someone a second chance before but being in the prison has really changed my outlook.

Has working in a prison changed your perspectives at all?

It has honestly turned me around; I had no idea what went on behind the prison walls before, I was completely wrong in all of my assumptions so yes, it really has changed my perspective of life on the inside and on the outside.

What advice would you give to new Chef just starting out in the trade?

If you answer the question “Why do you want to be a chef?” with “because it’s easy” then you are going to be in with a shock. Nothing is easy in this trade but if you work hard and really give it everything you have got you can have a truly great career.

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