Goat's Cheese, Wham and Second Chances

Written by: Violet Myers

Hopefully, the closest most of us will ever get to prison is binge watching ‘Orange is the New Black’ on Netflix, succumbing to ‘Porridge’ at Christmas or that brief stint with ‘Bad Girls’ during the 00’s. Lest we forget. But for thousands of young British people prison is a harsh reality, which doesn’t simply end once they have served their time. Being released back into society can be an exceptionally difficult and emotional process, especially when trying to re-connect with their communities and find work. We attended criminal justice charity Only Connect’s third North London supper club to meet some of the individuals they have been helping, in an effort to show second chances do exist.

I’m greeted warmly into the heavily decorated hall by an incredibly friendly, confident lad, who wears a large woolly hat with his shirt and tie. He’s one of the evening’s entertainers and, as well as singing like a black Michael Jackson, he leads the diners through games and reads monologues between courses. He’s joined on the music committee by a soul singer that commands attention and a shy rapper who treats the party hat wearing crowd of mainly over fifties to a rapped version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’… a sight I hope to never forget.

The charity offers courses in catering, music, drama and social enterprise. The supper clubs are an opportunity to bring all of their work together, whilst giving the participants a common goal.  It’s also a chance to raise money for the charity itself, which means they can continue to offer a fair London wage to all those involved with the organisation.

 

As I head into the small kitchen, which is packed with people chopping, stirring and frying, I watch as the finishing touches are added to the starter plates. A young kitchen hand, who can’t be older than twenty, struggles to create a neat balsamic glaze pattern.  This is until a mate suggests that he uses his graffiti tag as a ‘guide pattern’, resulting in thirty identically decorated plates of goats cheese salad, that look delicious.

I speak to *Tom, who is painstakingly prepping the next course, about how OC’s project has helped him:

“I’m enjoying it and I’m picking up new skills and meeting new people, it keeps me focused and gives me something to do. I’d like to be a chef some day and cook my own Caribbean food.”

 

*Jamal, who is stirring a pot of vegetables the size of a ten year old and has been with the project for four months, tells me that although he doesn’t have aspirations to work in the food industry he appreciates the experience “I want to produce music, I’m looking to break into the industry, that’s what I do. But I took this opportunity in the kitchen as I really enjoy it and want to build on my work experience.”

The food looks really impressive and is very proudly prepared by the small team of kitchen workers, many of whom have only been out of prison for a couple of weeks. Louise, who is head of the catering department, explains that she runs a ten week course straight out of prison and that their main aim is to help offenders gain confidence and experience, so they can find future work in the catering industry.

As the main course of gammon goes out to the diners, I grab a word with Dani, who is head of delivery at the charity.

Though several helpers, like her and Louise, are present I’m told that the events are almost entirely thought-up by the participants, as they feel they know how’s best to help them.  Dani goes on to explain “These nights are really a combination of all of our work, we celebrate the guys talents, getting them to share with the world how talented they are. There are so many things going on in their lives, but these events bring them together, they know what they have to achieve and there’s a quick outcome. We want to challenge stigmas and create responsibility outside these four walls. reaching out and integrating our guys into their own communities.”

The event goes off without a hitch. I sneak out before dessert, a giant chocolate roulade that one of the guys has already warned me is ‘the size of sleeping bag’, but before I go I talk to our hat wearing entertainer, who’s taking a break between songs.

 

“I’ve been involved in different OC projects for years now. I never called myself a performer until I joined, I knew I wanted to be, but I had severe stage fright and just couldn’t do it. They coached me and trained me and now I’m doing it.” It’s hard to believe that this charismatic, talented singer, who has been entertaining a roomful of people all night could ever have a trouble being on stage. He continues:

‘OC gave me my first opportunity, personally it has been life changing’

 

Only Connect will be running a monthly supper club,  to find out about upcoming events or get involved in upcoming projects go to their website: Only Connect or go straight to Tickets to the next OC Supper Club.

*Names have been changed.

 

Photos: Violet Myers

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