Imagine going to jail for food!
Impeccably dressed in red and white striped uniforms, the courteous staff at the Tihar Food Court flash a smile as you enter.
Though just a month old, it has managed to woo Delhiites with some of its delights like kesar lassi, dahi bhalla and sandwiches – freshly prepared and swiftly served by the inmates themselves.
Started June 14, the eatery located on Jail Road, which also houses a flourishing furniture market in west Delhi, hopes to become a people-friendly joint that serves quality food at reasonable prices.
“Customers make their first visit to the eatery out of curiosity. But when they return with positive feedback and demand for getting our food packed, it feels great,” Suresh Kumar, a chef at the eatery, told IANS.
Suresh Kumar, who has already served over 14 years in jail, arguably Asia’s largest, is among the seven inmates who maintain and manage the spacious and clean joint, adjoining the furniture and bakery showroom, whose products, also made by the inmates, are already a rage.
The food court, which is an extended facility of the Tihar Shopping Plaza near gate No.3, remains open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner.
The eatery has 10 tables to accommodate around 40 guests. From samosas (Rs. 15), soyabean chop (Rs. 150) to a thali (Rs. 120), the joint has become popular by word of mouth.
Dost Mohammad, 51, whose job is to keep the joint clean, is happy to see people enjoying themselves at the eatery.
“It feels heartening to meet people from outside,” Mohammad, who has spent over 12 years inside the Tihar Jail for murder, told IANS.
Suresh Kumar and Dost Mohammad live in the semi-open jail, which houses those who have spent 12 or more years in prison. Prisoners are also shifted to this facility depending on their good conduct.
Suresh Kumar said the seven of them were selected from a batch of 50 inmates and were trained by experts from the hospitality sector in housekeeping, cooking and bakery.
What also went to their favour was their “good conduct, education and other skills”.
The seven lucky ones also receive an extra daily allowance of Rs.74.
Balkrishna Grover, a cook, said: “It was a two-month long training inside the jail complex itself, after which we were given a certificate and an amount of Rs.1,000-Rs.2,000 depending on the nature of training received.”
He was taught to make 106 dishes during the training period, he added.
“Try my shahi paneer. I consider the dish to be my specialty,” gushed Grover, who has completed 13 years in the jail and was earlier an electrician.
According to Tihar jail spokesperson Sunil Gupta, “the main idea is to reform, rehabilitate and reintegrate the inmates back into the society.
“Through such initiatives, we want the public to know the effort being put in to reform the prisoners,” Gupta told IANS.
Dev Gulati, a customer, said he was very impressed by the service at the joint.
“I got to know about the food court at the Tihar jail being run by the inmates through a friend. I was extremely inquisitive and wanted to see what they serve.
“I am extremely impressed by their services and food, especially their dahi bhalla,” Gulati told IANS, adding that he will “definitely bring friends along” to try the food.
Rajat Singh, another customer, wrote in the feedback book that he was “amazed” by the humble and cooperative staff.
“Since the eatery started service, around 40 to 50 people come here daily,” eatery manager Mohammad Asim, dressed in formal white shirt and dark trousers and tie, told IANS.
“I recently got married when I was out on parole. My wife often comes to meet me and I cannot explain the happiness on her face when she sees me working here.”
Asim, 36, who has served 13 years in jail, told IANS.
The eatery, apart from serving delicious food, also showcases various other skills of prison inmates in the form of artworks that adorn its walls, and the artistically carved furniture.
The restaurant also has an outdoor seating arrangement where around 10 customers can sit on jute seats.
According to Gupta, the prison has also received requests for home delivery that the authorities were considering.
Head warden Kishan Singh Bisht told IANS that the authorities are planning to now advertise the eatery.
The food court, apart from giving the inmates a chance to meet and offer their expertise to the world outside the boundaries of the prison complex, has also given a new lease of life to the inmates.
“I used to work as an electrician earlier, but now with the coming of advanced technology, the vocation might not be as lucrative. I would love to continue cooking and taking it forward,” Balkrishna Grover, the father of two boys, shared.
Agreed Dost Mohammad who said: “Yes, I too will continue working in the same profession after being released from here.”