Meet the food heroes of lockdown
Lockdown inspired a wave of community cooking from a host of UK chefs – and now many of them are committed to continuing that good work on food’s frontline
Eat Well, Manchester
At the beginning of lockdown, reopening her Creameries restaurant could not have been further from Mary-Ellen McTague’s mind. Instead, she threw herself into coordinating Eat Well, a coalition of stellar chefs from Manchester restaurants such as Hispi, Baratxuri, Where the Light Gets In and Higher Ground, that began producing meals for NHS workers and various charities. For a period, it made The Creameries seem irrelevant.
“I was just, like, restaurants are absolute bullshit, what are we doing? We should be feeding people who haven’t got enough food. It was a bit dramatic but I was exhausted. Feeling jaded. I’ve calmed down since.” Nonetheless, Eat Well was so refreshing – in the lack of ego among the volunteer chefs and the “lovely, appreciative” feedback – that Mary-Ellen felt it must continue. Eat Well’s focus is now on getting hot nourishing food to families in temporary accommodation. That will be funded using the profits from its new online store which will sell exclusive pantry goods, fresh produce and meal kits from key Manchester indies. “It’s positive for a struggling industry,” says Mary-Ellen, “as well continuing the food support.”
Happily, The Creameries – much-loved for its ultraseasonal, veg-centric cooking and creative application of artisan skills – reopened mid-September: “I spent a day on a farm recently learning how to build veg boxes for Eat Well, and handling produce immediately started me thinking about menus. I’m surprised but I’m raring to go. I miss feeding people. I miss service. I miss pouring nice wines.” eatwellmcr.org; thecreameries.co.uk
Bristol Food Union, Bristol
This union of chefs, restaurants, artisans and activists assisted Bristol’s Covid-19 relief effort in 101 ways: from building an online directory of food producers selling direct to the public, to feeding vulnerable groups and subsidising the pay-what-you-feel café Stokes Croft Food Project.
After initially fundraising to feed NHS staff (sales of an art print by Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja raised more than £100,000), the BFU will now morph into a social enterprise agitating for “systemic” change. “The focus is not just getting food to communities in a crisis,” says co-founder Aine Morris, “but making sure independent food has a future.” One which broadens the availability of “good food at affordable prices”. Chef Josh Eggleton, another BFU founder, is totally on board with this future of what Aine calls “social gastronomy”. His team from the Michelin-starred Pony and Trap is currently cooking the likes of deep-fried pig’s head with fermented vegetables, and lamb with crispy belly and anchovy purée at Breaking Bread, a temporary outdoor dining space, but when the Pony eventually reopens in Chew Magna it will do so as a “food foundation” with limited “educational” restaurant services running alongside bakery and community cookery courses; meal deliveries to those in need; and a volunteer scheme where people can work in the kitchen garden in return for lunch and a veg box. “We need to put community first,” enthuses Josh. “Having a Michelin star is great but there’s bigger ideas out there about how our food systems can change to help everyone and reduce food inequality.” bristolfoodunion.org; breakingbreadbristol.co.uk
Food for Good, Edinburgh
In March, as lockdown loomed, chef Steve Brown – well-versed in community outreach through his work at Edinburgh Food Social – compiled a WhatsApp group of 100-plus chefs, suppliers, restaurateurs, event planners and charities. How, he asked, can we all work together to feed those in need?
“The mantra was to ensure that nobody fell through the cracks,” says Steve. In fact, he was adamant that Food for Good should rise above “emergency food which sees people given a sandwich, clementine and cereal bar. Every single Scottish citizen deserves nourishing food.” Working with chefs from restaurants including Dishoom and Gardener’s Cottage, Steve was able to give people a daily choice of, say, freshly cooked dahl, mac ’n’ cheese or spring chicken with asparagus (“Dignity is the right to choose,” he says), and using donated produce with government money and crowd-funding, he ensured that those meals were made with quality local, seasonal ingredients. The next stage, says Steve, is to create permanent networks of mutual assistance between chefs, producers and community groups around Food for Good: “That idea of building back better.” Chef-owner Carina Contini is facing her own challenges in reopening three Edinburgh venues. At her Italian flagship, Contini, social distancing means fewer chefs, a shorter menu (“Six mains, but they’re coming out beautifully”), 30% fewer covers and £5,000 spent on glass partitions to divide tables in this chic former George Street bank. But after donating produce from her kitchen garden to Steve during lockdown, Carina will continue to support Food for Good in various ways. As she puts it: “The only way through Covid is working together.” crowdfunder.co.uk/food-for-good-coalition-1; contini.com
Open Kitchens, Nottingham/nationwide
“More than eight million people live in food poverty,” says Alex Grundy, Open Kitchens’ co-founder. “That’s a huge number struggling to get healthy nutritious meals and, in parts of the country, one in five are children.”
In collaboration with his friend, Adam Roberts, owner of Nottingham-based hospitality marketing agency, Go Dine Digital, Alex spent lockdown building a volunteer-run, non-profit platform that will hopefully enable restaurants to help alleviate that hunger in a scalable, sustainable way. The premise is simple. Open Kitchens raises funds for restaurants via individual JustGiving pages and as targets are met that money (£1.85 per meal, with 25p covering packaging, PPE, energy costs, etc) is used to produce free meals. Open Kitchens identifies partner charities, handles distribution and other practicalities. All the restaurants have to do is cook. Nottingham restaurants such as Yamas and Bar Iberico got on board first. But by mid-August, Open Kitchens had 50 affiliate restaurants signed up, including London’s Kricket, it had produced 180,000 meals and, now supported logistically by Hilton Hotels, it is hoping to expand rapidly. Prashant Jaiswal’s Viva was already cooking dahl makhani and ‘railway potato curry’ (“Just like you’d eat quickly at a station in India”) for NHS staff and Nottingham charities before joining Open Kitchens. But, now reopened in Hockley, Prashant intends to continue this “amazing initiative” as a positive Covid-19 legacy: “The good thing that came out of lockdown was that everyone pulled together.” openkitchens.co.uk
Meals from Marlow, Marlow and surrounds
Like most chef-owners, Tom Kerridge spent July overhauling his businesses. For instance, to space them out, tables were moved into the Hand and Flowers bar and the bar itself into a handsome flower-filled tent outside. “We’ve spent a huge amount so we feel staff are safe and to put guests at ease.”
But as the Hand gets back into the groove of serving two-Michelin-star fish ’n’ chips or duck with sweet and sour onion tart and cherry ketchup, Tom is determined to continue the community work which defined his lockdown. Utilising his catering company Lush, the Pub in the Park team and volunteer furloughed chefs, Tom launched Meals from Marlow to feed frontline NHS staff – but it soon turned into a far bigger project, working with Marlow’s churches and local charities. At its peak, it was cooking more than 1,000 meals a day.
A well-known TV face, Tom raised £180,000 for Meals from Marlow and could persuade huge meat suppliers 2 Sisters and Dovecote Park to donate. But it also served as a real reminder of his “position in the local community and making sure we’re involved in every charity we can be”.
“Appearing on TV and whatever, you see it as national reach for the Hand and Flowers, and sometimes you forget the people who live next door. Marlow is a lovely, affluent town but there’s a huge amount of people – lonely, little money, elderly or vulnerable – who need help.”
Now a registered charity, Meals from Marlow is still producing hundreds of meals weekly for local residents. But, says Tom, he would love to see it grow: “Who knows where it’ll be in 10 years?” thehandandflowers.co.uk
Fee’s Food, Cornwall
Cornish catering business Fee’s Food joined forces with local chef Tim Spedding to create Cornwall Community Kitchen. Aiming to help local food banks and charities meet inflated demand, the team are working hard each weekend to prepare meals for the Wadebridge and Bude food banks, as well as DISC Newquay, a charity supporting homeless and disadvantaged people. It’s run by volunteers, and you can get involved by donating. feesfood.co.uk
Le Bab, London W1
This Soho kitchen has become home to a not-for-profit project: the London Restaurant Co-operative. Employing chefs and waiters who’ve lost their incomes, its aim is to create delicious meals for a small-as-possible price tag (think £6.50) to be ordered online and delivered locally, with 100% of profits going to the staff. You can also donate meals to NHS workers for just £4. londonrestaurantcooperative.com; eatlebab.com
Square Food Foundation, Bristol
During lockdown this cookery school and community kitchen in Bristol helped to support local families living in poverty, who usually rely on free school lunches. Its classroom kitchen was used to cook ready meals and prepare DIY meal kits for delivery to children and their families who may otherwise go without. The Square Meals initiative has now ended but donations are still needed for its community cooking classes and lunch clubs. squarefoodfoundation.co.uk
The Quarantine Cookbook
With recipes by the likes of chef Skye Gyngell and food writer Laura Jackson, this digital cookbook is available in return for a one-off donation to any food bank, many of which are overstretched as they try to meet the increased demand that Covid-19 is causing. thequarantine-cookbook.com
Photographs by Marcus Holdsworth and Itsmelouis.com