FIFTEEN months ago, in the middle of a Wellington winter, I found myself standing on the cold concrete floor of New Zealand’s Rimutaka Prison, interviewing six men who had been sentenced to life for the most heinous of crimes – rape and murder. I suppose I should have been scared – at the time there was also an earthquake which woke me in the middle of the night with my bed shaking – but the old news journalist in me got the better of me, and I was bursting with curiosity. How would these men treat a female journalist in their space? What did the interior of a prison really look like? How would these six rapists and murderers act? And how should I act?
Fast forward to last Saturday night where I found myself in Fiji at the annual Australian Society of Travel Writers Awards where I was the finalist in four categories: Best Australian Story under 1000 words; Best Use of Digital Media; Best Travel Book; and for the story which led me to Wellington: Best Food Travel Story. I was incredibly honoured to be announced the winner in the Best Food Travel Story, and so today, I thought I’d share that story with you, which took me from windy Wellington to sunny Fiji. And the story that took those men from a life outside of prison, to “inside the wire”, where some of them have not felt the sand between their toes or the sun on their faces for decades.
In my acceptance speech on Saturday night, I flippantly remarked that those six men had far better manners than most of the boys I had dated in Brisbane. And in many ways, it was true. As you might imagine, a long time in prison changes a person. Many for the worse, but in rare cases, some for the better. Driving back from the prison with the chef who was teaching them to cook as part of their rehabilitation program, one thing became clear. If you treat people like animals and then release them back into society, no on wins. But if you treat people with a degree of humanity, and provided all of the correct procedures and protocols are adhered to surrounding their release, maybe, just maybe, there is hope. My winning story “Rough Road From Prison Gate To Plate” appeared in News Ltd’s Escape section last year. I hope you enjoy it…
ON a windy Wellington day the irony of a small red yacht by the name of Not Guilty is not lost on the city’s celebrity chef Martin Bosley, whose eponymously named restaurant overlooks Port Nicholson Harbour in which the boat is moored. Bosley has just spent four hours in Rimutaka Prison at nearby Upper Hutt, a place he has visited regularly since last November. Here the chef, who has owned restaurants in Port Douglas and has appeared on Australia’s Master Chef, has been teaching six prisoners – all serving life sentences – how to cook in preparation for Visa Wellington on a Plate’s festival landmark event – Prison Gate to Plate.
It’s clear that Bosley, who serves “wild-caught” sustainable catches in his Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club restaurant likes a challenge, but the thought of going into a prison and working with blokes who had “done bad things” was a stretch even for this creative cook.
“My initial reaction was that I didn’t see it working. It turns out I had some pretty
red-necked opinions of those who committed crimes and I thought a life sentence should be for life and that prisoners should be breaking rocks in the hot sun and that three meals a day was too many,” he says.
“But I found myself becoming more and more intrigued about the role food was playing in their lives and I thought ‘let’s do it’.
“Within the prison kitchen environment I was comfortable as all kitchens work the same. You pick up on that sixth sense of the ballet of the kitchen.”
Still, about the only thing Bosley’s up-market restaurant had in common with the prison kitchen was the colour scheme – both are shades of grey – which is somewhat fitting, because that’s where this chef found himself shifting, to the middle ground. In terms of a destination, there’s nothing pretty about Rimutaka Prison itself apart from the alpine surrounds in which it is nestled. Once “inside the wire” it’s patently clear this is a working jail which houses some 900 inmates, some convicted of the most cruel and cunning crimes. On a daily basis, 36 men work in the prison kitchen to feed this populous on a budget of $4.50 per head, per day. Usual fare includes sausages and gravy and it is this same restricted menu which is served throughout every New Zealand prison.
Six inmates were selected by the prison’s Chief Catering Officer to be trained chefs under Bosley’s tutelage for the Prison Gate to Plate event, a two-night $70 a head function for the public and a third night for prison stakeholders. Tickets for the public event sold out within 14 minutes.
“When we started last November there was definitely an edge of ‘I don’t know any of these foods or what these words mean’ from the prisoners. They had good skills in practical cooking – they are used to making coleslaw for 900 men and sausages and gravy and that menu rarely changes,” Bosley says.
“When I first went into the prison I felt I needed to be assured, self confident and tough but I’m not tough at all. I remember saying ‘we are going to have fun and learn but at the end of the day, don’t let me down’.
“Some of these men have had nothing in their lives. It is all about building their self-esteem and self-confidence. They don’t want to let themselves down and I’ve felt they’ve been teaching me about humility and life.”
In turn, Bosley has taught the inmates how to make the sorts of dishes that will be served on August 9 and 10, with the prisoner’s own twist on a mocktail – Jail Juice – blackcurrents, kiwifruit, apple juice, fresh ginger and soda water – being served in the Visit Hall. Guests, who will have to undergo the same strict security procedures as all visitors to the prison, will then be escorted to the Corrections Staff College Dining Room for Canapes served with a sense of humour – on regulation prison plastic trays – followed by a mouth-watering menu for which Bosley is renowned. Prisoners and prison guards will all be dressed the same, in standard black and white waiters’ outfits. Menus, catering instructors, table pieces, linen, printing and artwork, will all come from within the prison.
So successful has Bosley’s involvement been with the prison, he now employs a prisoner on a “release to work program” in his Wellington kitchen.
“I didn’t realise what a loss of freedom truly meant before I went in there. As a community we need to change our perceptions and be prepared that one day these men are getting out and we need to pick up where prisons leave off and reduce re-offending,” Bosley says.
“I never thought I’d be in the company of six men who have done bad things. But they don’t want to screw this up. There is nothing cool about prison.”
A spokesman for New Zealand’s Department of Corrections said they had a target to reduce re-offending by 25 percent by 2017. Through similar programs to Bosley’s they had already slashed recidivism by 9 percent.
Wolf, 46, has been working in the kitchen for the past two of the 13 years he has spent in the prison. He has another two years till he fronts the Parole Board.
“I grew up with a mum who loved baking and I came to jail and I didn’t have many opportunities at first and then I came into the kitchen. I love creating,” he says as he delicately places some prison-made relish on to some New Zealand cheese and crackers.
“Before I came to the kitchen I was pretty much one of those people no one wanted. I was the trouble maker who was in the High Security Unit for seven years. I was lucky someone gave me a chance and I haven’t looked back.
“My past has been pretty dodgy and I want to prove to people that I’m pretty worthy to be there.”
It’s a similar tale for the other five prisoners – Marco, Pete, Freddy, Brownie and Shultzie, all aged between 35 and 48, most having worked in the kitchen for around two years, all just living day-to-day not allowing themselves the luxury of thinking of the first thing they will do when they are finally released.
Except perhaps for Shultzie, 48, has been working in the kitchen for the past two of his 3.5 years in jail and has another 8.5 years until he is considered for parole. He’s in charge of the canapés for the Prison Gate to Plate event.
“The biggest lesson for me is that coming to prison is a waste of life but you’ve got to make the most of it. I’ve worked since I got in here and I’m going forward, I’m not looking back,” he says.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is visit my mum and dad’s grave sites as they died while I was in here. And then I want to go fishing. “
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Tourism Wellington and with the special permission of the New Zealand Department of Corrections. Special mention must go to Intrepid Travel for sponsoring the award prize which is a $2000 Intrepid Tour anywhere in the world – http://www.intrepidtravel.com