Rough road from prison gate to plate
One of New Zealand’s finest chefs, Martin Bosley, discovers there are life’s lessons to be learnt while spending some time with hardened prisoners, writes Christine Retschlag
ONAwindy 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 MasterChef, 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 working in a prison 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 upmarket 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 that 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 population on a budget of $4.50 a head, a day. Usual fare includes sausages and gravy and it is this same restricted menu that 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