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When I went to Rimutaka Prison for a three-course meal

Chocolate filled with smoked banana mousse on a slab of dark chocolate terrine. Photo/Lauraine Jacobs

A three-course meal inside prison walls proves a rewarding experience for food columnist Lauraine Jacobs.

A shiny cylinder of chocolate filled with smoked banana mousse sat atop a slab of rich, dark chocolate terrine. Beside it was a pile of crunchy honeycomb crumbs and a delicate quenelle of liquorice ice-cream. This tantalising dessert concluded a meal that had been as well executed and clever as those found in any fine Wellington restaurant. But there was one difference. These sweet treats had been served to diners by a mix of identically dressed inmates and Corrections officers inside Rimutaka Prison.
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The dessert was included in a three-course dinner served to visitors at the Upper Hutt prison as part of the 17-day Wellington on a Plate (Woap) programme of more than 100 events designed to showcase the region’s food and beverages. People wanting to enjoy one of the prison dinners, which were held over three nights, went into a ballot for the 270 tickets. More than 15,000 applications were received. Now in its fifth year, this $90-a-head Gate to Plate event is by far the most popular on Woap’s annual programme.

Wellington Corrections Department human resources officer Tracey O’Connell had the inspiration for the prisoner-cooked dinners six years ago when driving away from a Woap event. The department’s executive leadership team and the minister didn’t take much convincing.

The chef. Photo/Lauraine Jacobs

Wellington chef Martin Bosley was approached, but initially resisted. Having visited the prison, he found everything about life behind bars confronting and depressing. “I agreed to become involved after much persuasion, and it has been a life-changing experience. I’ve got far more out of this than I feel I ever put into it, and now I have more compassion and empathy for others. I have so much respect for the enthusiasm of these budding cooks, even though I know some may never be released.”

Corrections chief executive Ray Smith says, “Martin’s support is crucial and the partnership he has with our prison instructors is an example of how Corrections can work with those outside prison to improve the lot of those inside and prepare them for release.”

The prison has 1000 inmates and the industrial-scale kitchen pumps out meals three times a day using trays and a conveyor belt for distribution to prisoners. Another 60 meals are sent to the nearby women’s prison. The food is basic, but nutritious, as dictated by a national meal-rotation plan that repeats every four weeks. Feeding each prisoner costs about $5.30 a day.

Overseeing the kitchen are former army chef and catering manager Mark Gill and a team of staff. They supervise preparation by about 80 prisoners, who earn 30c an hour.

A selection of canapés. Photo/Lauraine Jacobs

These minimum-security inmates are offered the chance to study and gain practical experience towards NZQA units in cooking. As they add qualifications, they may get a pay rise to 40c an hour.

The aim is to teach the men skills that will help them find work after they’re released. As standard prison fare doesn’t give the students enough experience to gain the qualifications, the prison also runs a small catering kitchen for functions, such as police and Ministry of Justice events.

Thirty-eight prisoners are working towards the NZQA units, with a few already on the Release to Work programme that involves being escorted daily to work in supermarket bakeries and butcheries.

Plating up the entrée. Photo/Lauraine Jacobs

For the past five years, “Boz”, as the inmates call him, has been the lead chef for the Woap dinners. He works with the prisoners every week, and for the four months before the event he helps them with menu development. An annual theme is chosen with the aid of two other top Wellington chefs, who also volunteer their time. This year it was “smoked” food, with James Pask of Whitebait restaurant helping with the main course and Kristan Mulcahy of the Greenstone Hospitality Group designing the entrée. Canapés, dessert and non-alcoholic drinks were suggested and worked on by the inmates.

On the night of the dinner, the kitchen was abuzz. Much of the preparation had already been done in the preceding week, so it didn’t interfere with regular meal production. The prepped foods were then stacked on trays and loaded into a van to be taken to the Visit Block, where prisoners receive family and friends, and the dining room in the Corrections Staff Training School on the prison boundary.

Guests were served pre-dinner drinks in the Visit Block, which had displays of prison work programmes. They included construction, which offers trade courses and the chance to work on building a house; a print shop, which produced a recipe book for each visitor; recycling; carving; and horticulture.

Kombucha and fruit sodas were served with six canapés: tiny glasses of pea and kumara soup, little oxtail pies, chicken and horopito croquettes, delicate squares of smoked eel with horseradish crème, pickled Cook Strait octopus with salsa verde, and a porcini mushroom marshmallow.

Plating up. Photo/Lauraine Jacobs

The visitors then walked back through security to the dining room for their three-course meal. There was sake- and kaffir-cured salmon with avocado and high-country lamb with smoked mussel, green olive and seaweed.

Afterwards, as prisoners and staff mingled with guests, Bosley said, “When I started out, I couldn’t believe people would come, would pay and would want a dinner where no alcohol was served. But it has been successful in so many ways, as hospitality is all about teamwork. Corrections staff do an amazing job with prisoners, giving them training so they can find jobs when they’re released.”

Bosley noted employers often did not want ex-prisoners, but said, “We all need to open our hearts and minds to them.”

But perhaps the final word should go to one prisoner, who said, “We read the newspapers, we watch television and we can see we’re hated. We want to build bridges, we want to be better people, and although it’s really tough, to be honest we want jobs.”

Martin Bosley working with one of the prisoner-cooks. Photo/Getty Images

Rimutaka recipes

Rimutaka liquorice ice cream

3 large egg yolks

1 cup caster sugar

600ml cream

150ml milk

5 tbsp liquorice syrup (available in specialist food stores)

Beat the yolks and sugar until pale and fluffy. Then microwave on high for 3 minutes, beating again every 30 seconds.

Heat the cream, milk and syrup until hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat and whisk into yolk mixture. Pour it through a fine sieve into an ice-cream machine and process until frozen.

At Rimutaka, the ice cream is made by hand. The mixture is put into a bowl, covered with plastic wrap and placed in the freezer. It is whisked every hour for 3-4 hours to break up the ice crystals, then frozen overnight.

Makes about 1 litre.

Rimutaka homemade honeycomb

335g white sugar

125ml honey

80ml water

2 tbsp golden syrup

2 tsp baking soda

200g dark chocolate, chopped

Grease and line an oven tray with baking paper.

Combine the first four ingredients in a medium saucepan. Place over a low heat and cook, stirring, occasionally brushing down the sides with a pastry brush dipped in water to remove any crystals. Cook for 5 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved. Increase the heat to high, then return to the boil. Cook without stirring for 5-7 minutes or until the syrup reaches crack stage (154°C) on a sugar thermometer.

Add the soda, then quickly stir with a wooden spoon until combined (mixture will bubble and foam). Pour onto the prepared tray and leave to cool. Once cool, turn the honeycomb onto a clean surface and break into pieces.

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally with a metal spoon until the chocolate melts and is smooth. Transfer to a small plastic bag, then use scissors to snip off a corner of the bag.

Drizzle the chocolate over the honeycomb pieces, then put aside to set. Store in an airtight jar.

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.