Those who would like to see Gordon Ramsay in prison (including rival chefs, certain critics, and one or two specific journalists) will be disappointed to discover that his new series, Gordon Behind Bars, does not follow the famously volatile chef embarking on a lengthy custodial sentence. Instead, it is a thought-provoking, astonishing and occasionally moving look at Gordon Ramsay‘s efforts to set up a catering business with the inmates of HMP Brixton.
Here, Gordon Ramsay reveals just how scary the experience was, why he’s convinced this could make a massive difference to prison life, and what made him want to tackle such a complex project. And, speaking of tackles…
First off, Gordon, how are you recovering from Teddy Sheringham’s somewhat robust tackle in the recent Soccer Aid match?
I’m all fine, thank you for asking. I didn’t see that one coming – I suppose no-one would have! I’ve never had a problem with my back up until now. I felt slightly embarrassed, getting stretchered off. I had this horrendous spasm that put my back into shock. I couldn’t feel the back of my legs. But I’m 100 per cent better, and ready to go for my next run.
So your new series is Gordon Behind bars – what’s it all about?
This isn’t just a ‘let’s go and cook along with Gordon Ramsay in prison’ thing. The idea came from the fact that there are approximately 80,000 inmates across the country now, which is a hell of a lot. It was about getting them doing something with their time, giving something back, and also getting job-ready. The biggest problem is the re-offending percentages, people just go round and round in the system.
It sounds like an incredibly complicated project to take on, on a number of levels. Why did you want to do this?
I quite like that jeopardy, those up-against-the-wall odds. I don’t like it when it’s over-comfortable, too easy, something that can be done in two or three weeks. I like a challenge. And personally, I’ve dealt with these kind of guys on many occasions, whether in a Young Offenders Unit when we were filming The F Word, or dealing with my little brother, who’s been an addict for 15 years. When we were filming in the Young Offenders Unit in Leeds, seven years ago, that’s when I started to think of the huge missed opportunity in these places. There was so much excitement and boisterousness from the guys in there, but they had nothing to do in there, none of it was being harnessed.
What was it like walking into prison for the first time? How did you feel?
I’ve been in a few dangerous situations. But this has been one of the most intimidating experiences, because at times, you could just sense the atmosphere reaching boiling point, and you were just waiting for that fight to start. Everyone got particularly nervous when the cameras were around. And we were a small crew. The sense of intimidation was rife. You could feel it in the air the minute you walked in there. It was bloody intense.
How did you select the prisoners to take part? Did a lot of them want to do it?
We had an overwhelming response. We spoke to over 100 prisoners, we had to find out what they were in for, what their sentence was and they had to be security cleared. You have to understand that a lot of them were on remand, so they get moved on a regular basis.
What were the biggest logistical problems you faced?
If someone wanted a knife or a peeler or a spatula or a plastic scraper, you’d have to go to the shadow board on the wall, take out what you wanted, sign for it, give them a number, and then they weren’t allowed more than two utensils out at any one time. When one thing went missing, it was bedlam, the place would be on lockdown, everyone would be searched, and you’ve lost half a day. Getting them out of bed in the morning was tough as well – they don’t have to be up. Most of them get locked up after dinner, at 5:15pm, and they’re not let out the next day until the morning. So gathering them around was just horrendous. You’d go to every wing, accompanied by an officer, you’d have to take the crap on the wings from those who didn’t get on the course, and so by the end I stopped gathering them, I had to get the officers to do it. But they came in dribs and drabs for the first couple of weeks. I had to say to them “If I say 9am, I really want you in here for 9am.” To be honest, that’s not that early to start.
How hard did you work the prisoners, and how did they find that?
First couple of months was tough because they couldn’t stand on their feet for anything longer than two or three hours, so making bread rolls and soups, that was it. They’d want a break within the first two hours. It was like a social event in there sometimes. They could chat, they can watch TV in their cells, some even have a DVD player. They’ll go to the gym, see the doctor or even the dentist. So the first couple of months it was hard, because they couldn’t work past two or three hours. But after that, you could see some really strong differences in some of them. By the end, I had 95 per cent of the brigade working 7- 8 hours-a-day. And another interesting feature of that was that they would put in a full day, go back to their cell, have dinner, a shower, and slept, as opposed to sitting around getting bored. And they would sleep better because they’d put in a full day’s work.
You can be quite aggressive in the kitchen. Did you have to modify that at all?
I’ve been with offenders, from robbers to smuggling arms to gang members, you name it, we dealt with it. You knew any time that it was going to kick off. It could be about anything. The first big argument was because somebody left his sauce in his cell, and didn’t have it to add to his sandwich at lunchtime. I had to walk on eggshells, because it was very fragile, insecure, awkward temperaments that I was dealing with. Every time something went wrong, you could tell it was going to kick off. They did push my buttons, I did get upset, because there’s only so much you can take before you get to boiling point. And I did end up letting rip in the end.
And lived to tell the tale?
Yeah! One of the inmates complained that I’d dirtied his stove when I was doing a demo to help him get through this exam. What did I get? “You just dirtied my fucking stove?” Man, I flipped.
Were there any stages at which you regretted taking on the project?
About halfway through, I think. One of my guys had been sent to another prison, there were rumours going around that my team was on a jolly, they weren’t working hard, so they were getting treated differently when they were going back onto the wings. Then there was this turning point, when we set up a pop-up bakery in the middle of Clapham, and the response was amazing. I’d been worried that the general consensus of the British public would be ‘They were made by inmates, there’s no way I’m going to eat them,’ but the biggest message coming off the high street was really positive. They were really happy that the prisoners were working. Taking that message back in to the senior management meeting the following day was a real turning point. It meant that these guys, who had made a mistake and were serving their time, were doing something positive, were getting job-ready, and going to leave prison with a better work ethic and a better chance of not reoffending. Of course some won’t make it, but surely it’s a good start?
Did you form close relationships with any of them?
It was hard, because you spent so much time with them, you couldn’t help yourself, you got close to them. And they were desperate for the course to continue, it was a lifeline for them, to help them for their rehabilitation and get them job-ready. There was one guy in there, who showed such amazing determination. He lost touch with his family and when he left the army he started taking drugs. But he was such a talented guy, was passing every exam with distinction. He’s been on methadone for the past 12 months, and is out in 18 months, and is as keen as anything. Then there is Andrew who is working for the Roast group and he is doing really well.
Did you uncover any talent there who you would consider employing?
Well, Paul was working for me at The Savoy Grill. David I’ve got my eye on. He was pretty disciplined. There was another guy from Brixton, called Adonis. Smart guy, 6’5″, he got caught with a shotgun under his bed. He’s a talented, talented guy, so methodical, everything was really precise.
Is the idea in all of this to create a sustainable business that will exist and grow without you being involved on a day-to-day basis?
Yes. There are a large number of individuals in these prisons who are dying to get off their arse and work. So we’re looking at getting funding the Badboy Bakery so it can continue and grow. I’m hoping when we submit a business plan to Ken Clarke, the government will find someone to put money into it. And Café Nero has been brilliant, they’ve set up a pilot scheme whereby we’re flogging our amazing lemon treacle slice in eleven of their branches. They are presently not taking any money for them, all the takings for the cake going back into the Badboy Bakery. And it’s selling amazingly well, challenging their caramel slice to be the bestseller. So early indications are that this could be a real hit, if we get support from the government.
At some points you found the prison a terrible, oppressive place, at others you said you felt it was more akin to a holiday camp. What are your opinions now about prison?
What struck me most was the waste of time, effort and energy that could be channelled into something incredibly positive. Lying in bed, reading the newspaper, deciding what you’re going to have for dinner, playing the X-box, watching TV, going to the gym, their minds are so bored. They resent the outside world, they have a grudge, and they’re losing their self-esteem on an hourly basis. They have lost their will to work, and had all responsibility taken away from them. For me, it’s such a waste, such a missed opportunity. They’re just using the system, they’ve not motivated to do anything. They’ve got everything they need. If they were given more incentives to do some work, to get job ready, to be disciplined, it would help them, and surely their time would also go faster.
Do you think the project made a big difference to the self-esteem of the guys you worked with?
Yeah, I think it made a massive difference. Some of them had tears in their eyes when they got their certificates at the end, and they were saying “Is this going to continue?” And I said “If I can get the finance, and the support, and get individuals to understand the hunger of some of the guys in here to work, then of course. Currently we have funding in place until the end of July, while we look for an investor to keep it going. They would be mortified if they couldn’t work on a daily basis. At the end, we set up a pop-up restaurant in the prison, and served an amazing lunch for 50 guests, local restaurants and catering employers and community figures, and it was amazing. After that lunch it was like having a team of chefs, I almost forgot they were prisoners. In their minds now, they are ready and hungry to get out with real and realistic ambitions. They go back to the cell tired at the end of the day, they sleep well, and their sentence goes a thousand times faster.
Gordon Behind Bars is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays from 26th June at 9pm.