Meet the Italian prisoners cooking up a behind bars banquet with an acclaimed chef, booking out their jail restaurant months in advance.
Sunday, August 7, 2011 - 20:30

Prison food is something that most of us would happily live without trying, but in the culinary heartland of Italy, a restaurant at a Tuscan jail is booked out months in advance.

Behind the maximum security walls, video journalist Amos Roberts finds acclaimed chef Cristiano Tomei working with the prisoners to prepare a seven course banquet.

It's because this prison in Volterra has pioneered a kind of culinary rehabilitation of inmates and regularly invites locals in to sample their cuisine.

As murderers mingle with masterchefs at this picturesque 15th century fortress, the prison director underlines the importance of maintaining links with the local community and its food.

And it's not every prison, where inmates are allowed to celebrate with a glass of wine!


Here's a menu from the 'Restaurant of a Thousand Bars' at Volterra Prison in Italy - this one was served on 24th June 2011...

Gamberi nell'orto
Prawns 'in the vegetable garden' (on a bed of vegetables)

Cozze ripiene di coniglio
Mussels stuffed with rabbit

Pescato con chantilly di mozzarella
Fish soup with mozzarella cream

Maruzzelle con spuma di patate
Fish snails with potato mousse

Gnocchi con ostriche, peperoni e nocciole
Gnocchi with oysters, capsicum and hazelnuts

Panna stracchino e meringhe al caffè
Stracchino cream cheese and coffee meringue

Crema catalana al tabacco
Tobacco-flavoured catalan cream (crème brûlée)

The meal was cooked by the prisoners, Chef Cristiano Tomei and Assistant Chef Valentina Fatticcioni, with proceeds going to charity.

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Cooking challenges seem to be all the rage on television at the moment but tonight, a cooking story with a very unusual twist. Amos Roberts reports from Tuscany where diners need to book a table months in advance at the restaurant of a thousand bars.

REPORTER: Amos Roberts

Security's not a big issue in most restaurants - but then most restaurants aren't housed inside a state prison.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI, CHEF (Translation): Take the fish straight to the kitchen. Let's avoid bad smells.

Acclaimed Tuscan chef Christiano Tomei will spend the next two days working behind bars. But before he begins, a guard is assigned to count every knife.

GUARD (Translation): Hello, all kitchen workers are to be sent here, please. All the kitchen workers.

Call it 'Masterchef Miscreants' - Christiano and a handful of convicted criminals have until tomorrow night to produce a seven course banquet here.

REPORTER: What do you think of the kitchen?

CHRISTIANO TOMEI: The kitchen is love and passion.

One by one, Cristiano's convict cooks report for duty.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): Hi , good morning, now we are going to start and get organised, so;.there is nothing difficult about it.

But before work, there's always espresso.

REPORTER: So how important is coffee in prison?

INMATE (Translation): Very, very. You should see us when we prepare it, it is special.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): What is the knife situation here? Bad, real bad! We are using knives from the 1950's.

The facilities certainly can't compare to the Masterchef kitchen - but the setting more than makes up for it. The prison is housed in a 15th century Medici fortress in the town of Volterra, overlooking the Tuscan countryside. While there are plenty of tourists outside, the maximum-security prison is usually off-limits, until a few years go, when it opened itself up to curious diners.

MARIAGRAZIA GIANPICCOLO, PRISON DIRECTOR(Translation): I'd say the idea started taking shape in 2006 when we thought of introducing the Slow Food culture into the Fortress.

It was prison director Mariagrazia Gianpiccolo who decided that Slow Food a movement encouraging traditional and regional cuisine should be prepared by men doing time.

MARIAGRAZIA GIANPICCOLO (Translation): Our project isn't an accident, this is Tuscany - the food and wine culture is very strong here. A culture associated with the joy of the table and our project fits this culture reality perfectly.

The inmates recruited to help Christiano are the prison cooks. This morning they were dishing up spaghetti carbonara for lunch it's time for something a little more challenging.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): We're preparing a sheet of tomato paste - we'll use it for our sandwich together with the fish. Let me add, with a touch of pride, that a French magazine voted this sandwich as the world's best fish sandwich.

LEONARDO: Bellissimo!

REPORTER: Have you learnt a lot more about cooking from being part of this program?

INMATE (Translation): A lot, also because once a month we get some of Italy's best chefs - a number of them, it's very enjoyable. We have also improved our own cooking quite a lot just by observing their work, by taking something from one or from the other.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): Add a little bit more love, like this.

REPORTER: Where did you learn to prepare prawns like this?

PRISON COOK 2: By myself! Just now. In this moment!

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): They all seem to be quite good, even that guy from the mountains who says he can't clean prawns.

REPORTER: How does Cristiano compare to the other chefs you've been working with?

FRANCO (Translation): We haven't known Christiano for long, apart from putting me here;we'll sort it out later!

Franco was convicted of attempted murder and drug trafficking. Several of the other cooks are convicted murderers. All are passionate about their food even the ones who aren't from Italy.

ALBANIAN COOK(Translation): I think Italian cooking is the world's best.

REPORTER: It's better than Albanian food?

ALBANIAN COOK(Translation): Certainly.

REPORTER: Did you know anything about cooking before you went to prison?

ALBANIAN COOK(Translation): Bits and pieces, not much. Now I have more experience, at home my mother used to do the cooking.

Volterra's prison is famous in Italy for its rehabilitation programs. Along with a gourmet restaurant, there's also a renowned travelling theatre and a quilting group.

MAX(Translation): You give it shape, you model it, and you end up with an object you can actually sell as soft furnishing, home ornaments. Surely, of all the jails I have spent time in, including many maximum security ones, this is like a kindergarten. No doubt about that.

Max is nearly at the end of a 32-year sentence for murder.

MAX (Translation): What Volterra has taught me is;.tranquillity, which is not a small thing - being a restless soul, I need a lot of tranquillity, so one day when I am out of here, I will start at a different pace.

Christiano starts work on the second day by smoking potatoes with rosemary in order to make gnocchi.

ALBANIAN COOK(Translation): Don't inhale or you will end up in the infirmary. There's a strange smell - that is all I know.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): Get it? Don't let me hear tutututut - just a single noise.

REPORTER: Do you enjoy the ironing?

INMATE (Translation): I've never ironed before.

REPORTER: Do you think it could become a habit?

INMATE (Translation): I hope not.

The inmates at Volterra know how lucky they are. Most were transferred from far larger, more crowded prisons. Here there are only 150 men and they all have their own cells.

LEONARDO (Translation): Don't think of moving from Australia to Volterra, we have no room here!

Leonardo says he deserves to be behind bars.

LEONARDO (Translation): I am here for murder, it's a big blow, but I caused grief, it's only right that I pay. Jail should be a place where you do lose your freedom but not other things. But at the same time jail should be a new start, if that doesn't happen, when you get out you may commit the same thing again.

But the prison restaurant isn't just about helping rehabilitate killers and crooks. It's also about opening the prison up to the local community.

HOST (Translation): Hello and welcome to the Restaurant of a Thousand Bars.

After a lengthy wait it takes a while for the guards to screen everyone, 140 hungry guests are ushered into the prison courtyard.

MAN (Translation): That is good stuff, it's cuttlefish cream with asparagus.

GUEST: It's a crazy story, I think. To have a dinner in a prison, it's absolutely new.

REPORTER: Is this your first time inside a prison?

GUEST: Yes, of course!

Prison is supposed to be a punishment, but those who've secured a table tonight are lucky, according to prison director Mariagrazia Gianpiccolo.

MARIAGRAZIA GIANPICCOLO (Translation): In fact, 15 days after announcing our dates, we sold out, not booked, actually sold out - all our galas to the end of June. In October, all sold out to the end of June.

But despite the best efforts of the kitchen, not everyone's happy with tonight's gourmet offerings.

REPORTER: What do you think of the food?

WOMAN: Just a little. Too little. Too small.

REPORTER: But you're complaining about the small portions, and you've left your radish!

Amongst the inmates, there's also a mixed reaction.

REPORTER: Tell me what you thought of the sandwich.

COOK (Translation): It was delicious, even if it lacked salt.

For some guests the food is less important than getting a rare look inside a closed world.

GUEST: I don't know how to say it but I feel my freedom. I really feel my freedom and the importance of our freedom and you see those guys in their eyes that they would like to communicate with us and they would like to have the door to the exterior.

MARIAGRAZIA GIANPICCOLO (Translation): I'm sure that initially there is an air of voyeurism, but afterwards you return with an emotion. You return having lived a strong emotion and you can clearly see that in the people's eyes.

REPORTER: Many of the guests are very interested in you. They wonder who you are and why you're here. Does this bother you?

WAITER(Translation): To be honest, it doesn't, maybe it used to bother me but not anymore. Many years ago it did, not now. I know people are curious, who knows how they imagine jail - there are no monsters in jail, they are people like everyone else. They've made mistakes, so;

And in Italy, paying for those mistakes doesn't mean forgoing all of life's pleasures.

REPORTER: I think Italy's the only country I know where you can have wine in prisons.

INMATE (Translation): Yes, sure. Half a litre per day, if you don't like wine you can buy beer, a litre per day.

CHRISTIANO TOMEI (Translation): I would really like it if one day they were given the opportunity to join me for a few days in my kitchen, we could work together, my restaurant is fenced in just in case;. It may prove hard but you never know.

Since this program started, 13 inmates from Volterra have found jobs in restaurants. Along with the good food and company, it's an outcome everyone can drink too, the prisoners, their guards and even the prison director.

MARK DAVIS: That seems like a nice prison director. You cannot get much more Italian than that. If you would like to replicate their food, our website has the menu.











Original Music composed by Vicki Hansen

7th August 2011