LOCKDOWN: BEHIND BARS AT L.A.'S MOST EXCLUSIVE NEW OPENING
I have to apologise for the lack of images with this post (bar one supplied by the PR company). Last night’s supper was no ordinary supper and my camera was taken from me as we arrived at the restaurant and not returned to me until we left two or so hours later.
A few days ago I received an e-mail inviting me to a new restaurant press launch here in Los Angeles. Regular readers will know that DH seldom, if ever, accept such invitations. However, as I am still very new to the city and keen to make the acquaintance of members of the local food community, I put aside my oh so firmly held principles and agreed to go along. It also helped my decision that the invitation was one of the most intriguing I have received in a very long time.
It wasn’t just the invitation that caught my attention, but also the person who made it. My e-mail had come from Jennifer Loof, a senior associate at The Big House Public Relations. It is a remarkable company, which allows convicted female offenders the opportunity to have their custodial sentence commuted to a designated number of hours working to promote restaurants in Los Angeles that could not otherwise afford the exorbitant fees of a P.R. Jennifer had been working for the company for three years and she agreed to meet with me before supper to tell me a little bit more about her remarkable personal story.
Born of a wealthy Bel Air family, Jennifer seemingly had everything going for her. But, during her teenage years she found herself spiraling into a seedy world of crime as she sought the edge that her comfortable home life could not provide. Her own particular high came through shoplifting and although her lawyer father managed to have many of her misdemeanours overlooked, there came a time when even his influence could protect her no more.
She appeared in front of the court more than once and received community service each time. However, the final straw came when she stole $200 worth of lip gloss from Macy’s in Beverly Hills and was caught less than a block from the scene struggling to make her escape on a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s with four inch heels.
Jail seemed inevitable until she was lucky enough to appear in front of a judge who had sponsored the set up of The Big House. With time behind bars as the other option, she jumped at the opportunity to join the fledgling company and in the following years, had proved herself adept at promoting restaurants to the point that she was now able to create her own events such as the one to which I had been invited.
Until it opened to the public, tonight’s location was a well-guarded secret. After our brief conversation, Jennifer took me to the corner of the street where a gaggle of other journalists and bloggers had begun to gather. A large gun-metal grey bus turned the corner and we were soon herded without ceremony up the few steps and into our seats.
LOCKDOWN is a sister project to The Big House. It is a chance for ex-offenders and those seeking to escape imprisonment to rebuild their lives, this time by actually running a restaurant. Our meal tonight, we were told, would be prepared by those who had worked in the kitchens of some of America’s most notorious prisons, the menus were designed by those who had taken computer literacy courses and our drinks would be mixed by those who had attended non-alcoholic bartending classes in the hope of better career opportunities when they were released.
By the time our bus ground to a halt, it was already dark, which means that even if I did know the city better, I could not tell you where Lockdown is located. We were guided through a door, where a man dressed in full prison guard uniform asked us to remove our belts and place all of our personal belongings in metal trays. He assured us that we would be able to retrieve them when we were “released”
Our first port of call was Lockdown’s bar, which appropriately enough is called “Behind Bars”. My companions and I were shepherded into a small caged pen, where a fully stocked bar had been constructed and behind which two burly looking men in orange prison fatigues were busily mixing drinks for us with surprising dexterity. Our drinks tonight were a “Sing Sing Sling” which I found rather bitter and an “Alcatraz” which on closer examination, I realised was nothing more than a mule.
If Lockdown was merely a recreation of a prison, it was a damn good one and, as we were led through to dinner, we passed cramped cells that looked remarkably like the real thing. The dining room was designed like the sort of prison canteens you have seen in dozens of movies, a feeling which was compounded by the sounds of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues crackling its way out of sets of tinny speakers attached to the ceiling.
“But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry”
The theme was taken to further levels with the place settings. In front of each of our seats was a metal tray containing separate compartments for the different elements of our meal. To the side, was our cutlery, each utensil seemingly fashioned into prison style shanks using rough cut shards of metal and a toothbrush.
We were instructed to take our trays to a canteen like serving area where each compartment was filled with a different dish. “We have tried to release this style of food from prison and into the fine dining arena” Jennifer explained in what I knew was a well rehearsed routine. “If you like” she added earnestly “you could call it a sort of Prison tapas” None of the food looked particularly appealing to me, but I certainly was not going to be the one to complain to the staff, all of them sported many and varied home made tattoos and one of whom, a Samoan of at least 300lbs, wore a badge that said “Gonzo”.
I made my way back to my table and began to examine my unappetising looking tray in more detail. In one corner, were six mini fish fingers, or fish sticks as they call them on this side of The Atlantic. They had been fashioned into a small Jenga tower with a small blob of mashed potatoes imprisoned (geddit?) inside. In another corner were two mini burgers, which an accompanying menu described as “let it sliders”. In another, a few meagre strands of spaghetti in a meat sauce proclaimed as “The Long Stretch” and finally, our dessert, a quivering mass of lurid green called “Cello Jello”. One hesitates to use the words “botched execution” when talking about prisons in the US, but even if the concept had been more enticing, the cooking was not good enough to carry off the conceit.
To drink, we were offered house wine, which our server called “hooch” after the home brewed juice created as currency by many inmates. It was not as bad as the name would have you imagine, although I was unsure of the hygiene of dispensing it into metal mugs from what seemed like a well used hot water bottle (and, by “well used” well you can work how for yourself.)
Lockdown is a noble cause for certain, but as we were led back out to our transport after our evening’s entertainment, I could not help but feel like I had just spent days in solitary and was eagerly looking forward to my freedom. Jennifer thrust a pamphlet into our hands as we climbed back on board the bus in silence. As I sat down, I looked down and saw that Lockdown was due to open its doors to the public, or the “General Population” as The Big House called them, in the next few weeks. They were obviously hopeful of a great success as they already had a companion venue planned in Santa Monica called “Probation”
I don’t think I shall be visiting. I wish them all the luck in the world, but from now on, I shall definitely be on the straight and narrow.