Whipping up a blackcurrant jus in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison, shaven-headed convict “Pete” rhapsodizes about his new-found love of gourmet cooking, the swastika tattoos on his hand blurring as he whisks intently.
“You can get five dishes, five different flavors, from one fish,” the New Zealander says. “I thought normal fish all just tasted the same but I’ve learned a lot.”
Pete — not his real name — is among a team of inmates from the jail on the capital’s outskirts who prepared a five-star banquet for the public as part of this year’s Wellington on a Plate food festival.
More than 30 prisoners a year earn catering qualifications in the prison’s kitchens, providing them with skills to help them land jobs in Wellington’s thriving restaurant scene after their release.
This year, authorities decided to display the prison’s culinary prowess publicly for the first time.
In a program that gives a whole new meaning to “doing stir,” they enlisted Martin Bosley, whose eponymous restaurant was named New Zealand’s best in 2007, to train six prisoners over a nine-month period.
The result was Prison Gate to Plate, two nights of fine dining in August that offered 140 paying customers a four-course banquet in the prison grounds.
“It’s been the most extraordinary thing I’ve done in 30 years, and the most confronting,” Bosley said.
The chef, whose restaurant is situated in the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, admitted he was initially skeptical about swapping his swish waterfront location for weekly sessions in the grim surrounds of a prison kitchen.
“I wasn’t interested. I had very set views on crime and punishment, paying your debt to society, and wanted nothing to do with them,” he said.
“Then the idea started to intrigue me and I realized that these guys are going to get out eventually, what are they going to be doing on the outside?”
Asking an inmate what he did to end up behind bars is a serious breach of prison etiquette but Bosley said he initially assumed the six convicts selected for the program would not have committed serious offences because Rimutaka is a medium security jail.
He soon realized he was incorrect, as most of his students had originally served time in high-security institutions before being moved to Rimutaka as a reward for good behavior.
“It’s made me question some of the things I believed in, getting to know these guys, working with them and coming to like them,” said Bosley, who was not paid for his involvement.
“But always at the back of your mind there is the thought that there are victims out there,” he said
“There’s been days when I’ve come out and just sat in the car park here for half an hour feeling desperately sad and despondent, thinking what a terrible place. Other times I’ve come out and thought ‘that’s amazing, we’re making a difference,’” he added.
Bosley, who now has a former Rimutaka prisoner working part-time at his restaurant, said the skills of each inmate gradually emerged during his weekly sessions.
“Brownie” turned out to be a skilled butcher, wielding a razor-sharp knife with a surgeon’s care to trim fat from prime cuts of beef.
“Marco,” who says he could not make a sandwich before he was jailed in 2004, dreams of becoming a baker on the outside after perfecting his jailhouse pastries: “I want to make wedding cakes,” he told AFP.
“Wolf” took charge of the vegetarian option, creating a meat-free Wellington roulade accompanied by French puy lentils and goat’s cheese mousse.
“Every time I failed, I learned something,” he said. “Once I realized you can’t chuck all the stuff in a pot and just go for it, you actually have to study it, I found it fascinating.”
Bullet-headed and with a frame almost as wide as it is tall, Wolf admits that contact with non-inmates has been the most challenging aspect of the program, saying that like many prisoners he is intensely shy and being inside “stuffs up your social skills.”
He describes working on the banquet as nothing short of life changing, saying cooking has given him a goal to work toward.
“I’ve been here a long time and most officers would agree that when I came I was a troubled inmate. Since I’ve been involved in this it’s changed my whole focus (going) forward. I’ve now got a passion for this. It’s something I want to do and nothing else matters now,” he said.
“You sort of muddle yourself through the years and you’ve got no focus because every day is the same. It’s really good when you finally zoom in on something and go ‘bang, that’s what I want to do when I get out,’” he added
Wolf and the other prisoners were nervous about the reception their food would receive when AFP spoke to them just before the banquet on August 9 and 10.
They need not have worried. It received rave reviews, including one from the Dominion Post restaurant critic David Burton, who cited the opinion of one happy diner in his write-up: “If the food is always like this, I’d consider doing time.”