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The Ten: Natalia Middleton

Name and job title

Natalia Middleton, Development chef and Head Food Educator at Food Behind Bars

Where were you born, and where do you live now?

I was born in Brazil, grew up in both the UK and New Zealand and I am now living in South West London.

How you describe what you do?

I develop recipes and work along side prison kitchens to make the food healthier and more delicious using the allowed budget and I also equip prisoners with cooking skills and a broader understanding of food and the hospitality industry and help them to gain employment upon release.

How much did you spend on your last cup of coffee?

I don’t buy coffee out in the UK, no one can make it the way I like it, so it’s never worth it , but in NZ well I’ll happily spend £3-4.

What is one ingredient that is crucial to your work and life?

Patience. Patience when dishes are cooking, bread is proving, ovens are preheating etc, patience with the prison service in the UK (everything takes ages!!!), patience when teaching people new cooking skills, patience when my husband or our dog are driving me mad (this one is pretty rare). It took me a while to realise this one, but it’s really helped me in the past few years in particular.

What does a food and/or drinks system mean to you?

To me it’s all about sharing and learning from each other. Food and drink is very communal and is a really great way to bring people together. It connects people to the world (land, sea, animals, plants etc) and it can be a brilliant way to get people to open up.

How does your immediate environment affect your work?

Working in prisons can be a real challenge. Here in the UK there is only one supplier for all ingredients used in UK prisons, they constantly are removing ingredients and making ingredients on their lists more expensive and with our limited budget this is really hard. Working with people who are in jail for committing some pretty serious crimes is also a tough one sometimes, you have to think on your feet a lot and make sure the ingredients or equipment being used cannot be used in a negative way (yeast to make hooch, or equipment used as weapons etc).

Many of the people we work with also just don’t want to be there or have no interested in cooking, they are simply doing a job inside to pass the time and earn a little bit of money. So being able to motivate people can be tricky.

On a more positive note, as food is such a big part of their lives, they tend to be very grateful we are there helping to change the system and are always very polite (I’ve never been called Miss so much in my life!)

Where do you draw inspiration from, in your work?

My family and friends, places i’ve travelled to, I’m also constantly reading cookery books and food magazines or talking to people on social media about their experiences and cultures etc.

What impact do you want to have?

I really want to help change the hospitality industry, to make it more inclusive and diverse and to make sure that voices of people who aren't always heard are shouted about. I also would love to get more businesses and people hiring prison leavers/ ex - offenders and those who are on ROTL as it’s a huge talent pool that hardly gets tapped into which is a real shame.

What change do you want to see in the food and/or drinks system?

More inclusive and diverse not just in terms of culture and cuisines, but in terms of disabilities and definitely more women in food and drink. I also really want the system to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, little changes can make a huge impact and a lot of people are just too set in their ways, or lazy…

We ask all our interviewees to please send us two photos: one that represents themselves and one that represents their work. Natalia asked us to include the Food Behind Bars instagram - follow what they do!

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