Chef Kevin sits down at a table for four facing the open kitchen.

For the 29-year-old it's a welcome chance to take five minutes out from a hard day at work.

Dressed in his whites and apron, the Newport man knows the run-up to Christmas will be an important one for him. Between two roles in two different restaurants he can work and train up to six days a week, clocking up the hours as the big day looms.

But it will also be more than that.

That's because Kevin is now eligible for his upcoming parole. If it's approved he will have reached the end of his five years and three months sentence for GBH – something he refers to as a section 18.

It will also mean he can start his life afresh thanks to his nine months working at The Clink.

"I've always been in carpentry, steelwork. It's a bit different," he laughs.

If all goes to plan Kevin will soon be working full-time in a Cardiff restaurant
If all goes to plan Kevin will soon be working full-time in a Cardiff restaurant

Just a stone's throw away from the walls of HMP Prison Cardiff, The Clink restaurant relies entirely on the offenders, known in the restaurant as learners, who run it.

In the kitchen a team of eight work under the supervision of two professional chefs while a team of up to four serve and wait on customers – helped by a manager or two.

In total the scheme can train up to 15 kitchen and 15 front of house learners at one time.

Together they will feed around 70 diners a day between lunch and dinner services, not counting those who pop in for breakfast.

"I did front of house for three months to get my NVQ and then started in the kitchen," Kevin explains, as his fellow team-mate chops tomatoes and kiwis in the background for an upcoming lunch service.

Kevin gestures to the kitchen before adding: "Talking to customers is more interactive but there's pros and cons to both. It's more skilled in there."

Lunch service in The Clink during the lead-up to Christmas
Lunch service in The Clink during the lead-up to Christmas

Unlike its counterparts in HM Prison Brixton and High Down, The Clink in Cardiff is outside the prison walls.

It means learners from HMP Prescoed (the open prison in Usk) are free to travel to the training restaurant unsupervised before retuning at night.

It also means Kevin can work in a restaurant in the city centre when he's not doing his two days a week at The Clink putting his finishing touches on the the City and Guilds NVQ qualification all learners work to gain.

If all goes to plan he will work there full-time once his time in prison comes to an end.

Talking about his job in a local restaurant, Kevin explains: "We'll have around 40 customers there but it's quite a lot if there's two or three chefs in.

"We do all the cleaning and preparing as well. We're always running around."

Everything in the kitchen is made from scratch on the day. There are also no microwaves to rely on
Everything in the kitchen is made from scratch on the day. There are also no microwaves to rely on

With a smile he adds: "My mum is surprised by how well I've done. I've surprised myself by how well I've done.

"My dad passed away so this year will be the first time in six years I will be with my mum for Christmas. I've got her broadband, a new sofa, a smart TV [with my wages]. After five years it's nice to be able to do that for my mum."

As Kevin chats his colleague Tyrone is busy seeing to some customers who have walked into the restaurant.

With a piano soundtrack tinkling away in the background, and Christmas crackers laid out by the wine glasses, it could easily be any  high-end venue in the city centre.

While Clink restaurants in other prisons make diners eat with plastic cutlery – as they are inside the prison wall – this one is different.

Tyrone even served someone he describes as his "lady friend" once when she came for dinner with the prison's permission – something higher-security centres prohibit.

Asked what she thought about her visit, he winks at our photographer and jokes that at least he looked smart in his shirt and tie.

Since photographs identifying the learners are forbidden under prison rules we take a photo of him polishing a wine glass as he talks.

Tyrone is the only front of house learner on the day we visit

Tyrone, 23, is serving an eight-year sentence – again for a section 18 wounding offence.

Today he is in charge of everything front of house with the help of his training manager Jemma Smith.

He said: "I get to meet people from walks of life I normally wouldn't, if you know what I mean.

"You get some that are [nosy], some that aren't."

He nods at the table behind us: "I get the feeling that they are nosy. I just take it as it comes."

On his two hour-long breaks between shifts at The Clink Tyrone can meet his girlfriend or his brother. As an offender from a Category D open prison they are able to either get some food or relax together before he returns for an evening of training at the restaurant.

When it comes to food it turns out staff meals are also an incentive to join the programme compared to the meals offenders receive back at Prescoed.

The sleek dining area of The Clink is a million miles away from the prison walls nearby
The sleek dining area of The Clink is a million miles away from the prison walls nearby

"We get eggs, beans, sausage in the morning and for the afternoon it might be chicken or burgers," Tyrone explains.

He adds: "Everyone is good, we all bounce off each other, there's no drama.

"The training managers really help as well. If you mess up or tip a drink she (Jemma) will tell you it's okay and Christmas will be wonderful."

When asked if he's referring to any incident in particular he admits: "It was a berry drink. I spilled it and a woman was wearing a white T-shirt. The table were all laughing – I just said it was one way to break the ice."

Even in a professional environment, and a serious training programme, mistakes can be made and learnt from.

Tyrone has ADHD and admits he is either "chilled out or bouncing off the walls". With a year and a half left of his sentence he is keen to get his head down and work.

According to Jemma his outgoing personality is typical for those who choose to serve customers rather than the quieter ones who might opt to work in the kitchen.

The Clink has been rated one of Cardiff's top restaurants according to TripAdvisor

Jemma, who has managed The Clink for the last two years, said: "We are always aware of where we are and who we’re working with. You have to and you can’t take anything for granted. But you do have a joke and a bit of a laugh with the learners when you’re at work – it’s that kind of environment, it helps the day go by.

"They know the line – it’s a very fine line between too much and too far. We do have some young gentlemen here who are cheeky chaps so you do have to rein them in a little bit sometimes because they do get a little bit carried away but the customers absolutely love that about them.

"They love the lads having a bit of a chat about things and who will say they’ve made a bit of a mistake but they don’t care about that any more – this is what they’re doing now.

"It’s all exciting times for them. They don’t think about what has happened – it’s all about what they’re doing now and what’s going to happen next."

During her time at the restaurant Jemma has seen learners from all walks of life come through its doors.

There have been some who are illiterate and who have used the opportunity to gain their very first qualification. Then there are others who hadn't so much as fried an egg before who are now running the whole operation.

Most learners at The Clink have no previous experience in the catering industry
Most learners at The Clink have no previous experience in the catering industry

Jemma, who has worked in hospitality since she was a teenager, said: "We have had people who genuinely don’t have a clue.

"They have gone straight from a parent’s house to prison, or a parent’s house, got married, and their wife has looked after them and they’ve never cooked a meal in their life.

"They come here and you can see that look that they have no idea what they're going to do. But they soon learn."

As in any industry those that work in The Clink have to start at the bottom. For those in the kitchen that means a stint as a pot washer while those serving are given the task of polishing cutlery or cleaning the oversize mirror that adorns one restaurant wall.

Before they leave, or "graduate" as Jemma describes it, the chefs will have worked the every section in the kitchen including the pass overseeing every dish that goes out to diners – a feat more impressive than it sounds given the fact that the kitchen is completely open for guests to see.

The atmosphere in the kitchen is calm and relaxed on the day we visit
The atmosphere in the kitchen is calm and relaxed on the day we visit

Jemma said: "We hope to train learners in the same way that we operate.

"Working yourself up and stressing yourself out won’t help you in any way – you’ll actually make more mistakes. We are all quite relaxed individuals, all very different, which is why it works and we have such a strong team here.

"We have to mind the language, which is usually one of the bigger battles. When they start to flap and fluster the language might go a little wrong so we have to give them a strong look when that happens. 

"Nothing gets banged around, there’s no screaming and shouting, it’s all very relaxed. 

"Even when we have new learners they all fit in really well together and will help each other. They know it takes everyone to make it work. If they want to be really stubborn and not help anybody the only thing they are doing it making life harder for themselves."

Take a look inside Cardiff's newest restaurant, The Ivy:

Since opening its first restaurant in 2009 one of The Clink charity's main aims is to reduce re-offending among prisoners after they leave.

In July this year it was found that out of 100 "typical" learners 15% went on to commit a proven re-offence within a one-year period compared to 22% of those in a comparison group: a 32% improvement.  

Even for those who might not go on to work in hospitality, adapting to a 40-hour working week has also proved essential in preparing for life on the outside.

Dougie used to be an estate agent before he was sentenced for a drugs offence
Dougie used to be an estate agent before he was sentenced for a drugs offence

"Before I would eat things like eggs on toast, cheese on toast," admits 48-year-old learner Dougie, grabbing a seat quickly before lunch service begins in earnest.

"I've done all the sections [in the kitchen]. At the moment I'm on the pass.

"I'm quite calm actually – I like it when it's busy."

Originally from Gloucester, former estate agent Dougie is currently serving a 13-year sentence for a drugs offence.

As someone who has been working at The Clink for 16 months, he's seen a full rotation of the seasonal menus which change to include local fresh produce.

With everything in the kitchen made from scratch, there's not even a microwave for him to rely on when it all gets busy.

Dougie, who left school as a teenager, said: "I've come here for the training and qualifications. I like doing different things and learning different recipes.

"I don't have any favourites – it depends on how things are cooked."

As the restaurant fills up for lunch Tyrone and Jemma serve a steady steam of immaculately-presented plates.

As promised the atmosphere remains calm and relaxed – no Gordon Ramsay moments in sight.

In fact, thanks to its fine dining, the training restaurant has remained in the top 10 according to TripAdvisor for the last seven years and was recently recognised as one of the top 20 UK restaurants by TimeOut Magazine.

Phillip, a labourer, had just returned from home leave when we caught up
Phillip, a labourer, had just returned from home leave when we caught up

For 37-year-old Phillip, a day in the kitchen is nothing compared to his previous job spending days at a time working away as a labourer.

The father-of-six said: "Sometimes I would go away and work seven days a week. I would do 92 hours during a week so coming here is easy.

"It's just boring [in Prescoed] – there's nothing to do apart from go to the gym once a day. Coming down here is an incentive to get onto the next thing."

If all goes to plan, Phillip will be released on parole in 2021 after being jailed for supplying Class A drugs. To be eligible for the programme all learners must have between six and 18 months of their sentence left.

When their parole comes they will be supported by support workers who work full-time for The Clink to help learners find employment and accommodation.

As someone who is used to cooking at home for his children, and has worked in prison kitchens preparing meals for staff, Phillip is optimistic about his prospects after the big day comes.

He said: "A lot of boys are labourers and they all get laid off after Christmas. In the kitchen after Christmas your hours might drop a bit but you won't be laid off."

The kitchen in action
The kitchen in action

On the day we visit Phillip is in charge of the section cooking and preparing all the main meals.

It's his first day back and, with a whole new Christmas menu to adapt to, it's a lot to take in.

He jokes: "I've just come off home leave so this is my first day back – I haven't got a clue.

"I'm so tired – you think it's tiring here but then you go home and you realise how tiring it is looking after the kids.

"[If I get a job in a restaurant] I can send money home to them, it's all for them."

One of the signs on the kitchen wall
One of the signs on the kitchen wall

As the afternoon wears on the trickle of customers visiting The Clink starts to slow. According to the learners it's a quiet day – not that they mind ahead of the Christmas rush.

Plus there's always more potatoes to be peeled and tables to be wiped before they do it all over again later that evening.

But if the laughs and chatter as we say our goodbyes are anything to go by it's not a bad way to spend the day.

All the first names in this piece have been changed to protect learners' identities.