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Cooking behind bars

The recent airing of a reality television programme in the UK in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay attempts to turn a crew of convicts at Brixton prison, London, into a kitchen that can produce and sell food to the public, shows just how difficult it can be to run an efficient kitchen.

Any chefs watching Gordon Behind Bars ( may have been left wondering why Ramsay decided to make the task of running a kitchen even more difficult by recruiting people with little or no food preparation experience, coupled with histories of violent crime.

While the drama of reality television involves taking the scenario to extremes, the programme still helps to reflect the multitude of considerations and challenges that face a chef trying to run a successful foodservice business. From botched attempts to follow a recipe to arguments erupting between nerve-frazzled trainees, so much can go wrong during foodservice.

The ‘behind bars’ situation does shed some light on the attention to detail commanded by foodservice operations. The location of equipment and utensils is important, not least because many of the tools the trainees are using could become dangerous weapons if smuggled out of the kitchen. Yet behind this dramatic layer there is a grain of truth for all foodservice businesses.

Comprehensive awareness that things are in their right place is vital if service is going to be efficient. People shouldn’t be spending time searching for a missing peeler, getting in each other’s way by sharing knives, or cross-contaminating foodstuffs by using the same areas or boards for chopping raw and cooked meats, for instance.

Tackling the many and varied aspects of running a successful foodservice business can be challenging enough, without trying to do it with people with hardly any experience in a prison. Busy shifts, reacting to customer demands, and keeping your kitchen clean and safe involve plenty of careful planning, initiative, and rigorous establishment of processes among staff.

Gordon Behind Bars is still running on UK television: whether Ramsay succeeds with his ambitious venture remains to be seen (though the rules of television-land suggest it is likely). Should he achieve something in the circumstances, it could help illuminate how important firm management, careful organisation and established processes are to a successful, safe, and hygienic foodservice business.

For those not working with prisoners without training, some steps to achieving efficiency and safety are, thankfully, easier to take. Clear, direct signage and instructions for designated work stations; colour coding and other helpful hints for different zones of the food preparation area; handy supplies of materials needed to keep hands and surfaces clean. They may be simple steps – but then not everyone is setting up a kitchen behind bars.