DeliverAid: feeding NHS staff is keeping furloughed chefs busy

A new charitable scheme has top chefs feeding NHS workers

1y ago

DeliverAid’s aim is fairly simple. Its strapline is, “Let’s take care of the people taking care of us”.

London chefs, with their newfound availability (and numerous supplier relationships to try and maintain), prepare and cook batches of food at home or in their decommissioned restaurant kitchens, usually twice weekly.

DeliverAid packages them up for collection from a fleet of volunteers, who deliver to nominated liaison officers at specific departments at hospitals — and now two care homes — across the capital.

While there has been an understandable media focus on intensive care units and doctors treating COVID-19 patients, DeliverAid is sending meals to as many hospital departments as it can: to nurses, porters, security staff, and doctors not treating coronavirus patients but who have felt the wider pressure on the system.

It’s why, for example, Great Ormond Street children’s hospital — which has received an influx of patients from hospitals managing the crisis directly — is among the 16 being served by the initiative.

The project was dreamed up by co-founder Jack Manley, who is a junior A&E doctor at Whipps Cross in Leytonstone. As the crisis had worsened, he and doctors like him were being gifted meals from local donors and patients’ families. The problem, he soon realised, was that those meals were going only to doctors.

For most staff, finding a decent meal in hospital was tricky. With more staff in the building doing more hours, the canteens were busy, and breaks would be spent queueing for food that staff had to pay for. We all saw the ransacked shelves in supermarkets, and for a while NHS staff were being left with nothing when they headed to the shops after a long shift. DeliverAid was intended to provide these workers with meals.

William Akman, co-founder of DeliverAid, began recruiting chefs. The city was full of furloughed chefs with empty kitchens, and he knew that many would be willing to volunteer their new free time to this project.

Among them was Nick Bramham, head chef of Quality Wines, a small bar that he had turned into one of London’s standout dining places last year. William Akman was a “super-regular” at Quality Wines, according to Bramham, and the two had come to know each other personally over the course of the last year. Naturally, then, Bramham was one of Akman’s first calls. Bramham had been furloughed, and because working for DeliverAid was voluntary, he would not be compromising the terms of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Bramham became integral to the project, influencing the food both stylistically and nutritionally. He embraced the creativity the task welcomed – besides sticking to the £5 per meal budget, he could cook whatever he saw fit.

Bramham decided early on to make food that “appealed to as broad a spectrum as possible”. He kept it vegetarian or vegan, included limited allergens, and made sure every plate was healthy and filling. “Fresh vibrant flavours, lots of spice, and herbs, lots of veg — and really tasty,” he said. He also managed to get the per meal cost down to around £2 -£3. Bramham says he likes, “a flavour profile focused around the Mediterranean,” although he does sometimes deviate to things like mushroom and bean chilli with rice and jalapeños.

17 restaurant chefs have since volunteered for DeliverAid, and together they provide on average 1,000 meals a week for hospitals across the capital. In the month since launch, it has taken over £43,000 in donations.

The other volunteers include Quo Vadis’ Jeremy Lee, Ombra’s Mitshel Ibrahim, Zoe Adjonyoh of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and Two Lights’ Chase Lovecky. Most cook from their empty restaurant kitchens, but Anna Tobias, whose restaurant was on the cusp of opening before the pandemic, has been cooking at home.

However, that hasn’t stopped Tobias from pulling her weight. She’s been cooking 50 vegan meals a week, all with as few allergens as possible. She’s been focusing on cramming in all the vital food groups and nutrients to ensure the NHS workers have plenty of energy.

Tobias has managed to keep portions at a cost of £1, which means the DeliverAid donation pot can go so much further. She’s managed this with a few crafty tricks; for dried goods — pulses, grains, oil, and tins — she’s using local shops. And for the fresh vegetables, she uses London-based European fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora — which in the morning, advertises its “second selection” to trade accounts like hers. Its ingredients are, Tobias said, “past their sublime moment and perhaps less aesthetically pleasing,” but still high in quality. It also means her cooking remains determined by seasonal produce.

For many chefs, volunteering for DeliverAid has been a welcome relief from the normal work week. At work, 60-hour weeks are not uncommon, and every shift is an emotional concoction of adrenaline, heat and pressure. It’s led Tobias to wonder whether volunteering for DeliverAid might be as much about chefs looking after themselves as helping others.

Last week, Nick Bramham went back to work at Quality Wines. He has launched Quality Wines at Home, cooking four-course meals and a series of snacks for collection or delivery. Asked how the first day back went, Bramham said, “busy, chaotic, kind of fun … we sold out which was cool. Learned a bunch. Hopefully it will get better and easier as the weeks go on.”

Bramham has had to step back from DeliverAid for the time being. Charged with managing the prep and cooking of the new takeaway service alone, he no longer has the time. But now, with so many other furloughed chefs involved, it can and will keep going until there’s no longer a need for the service. “I’m happy it’s in safe hands,” he said.

When all these chefs return to their kitchens, it will be intriguing to see the lasting effects of this work. Tobias said the experience had caused her to ask, “Can I do something a bit more like this for a period of time in whatever the restaurant becomes?”

The restaurant industry is a long way from home right now, and even when lockdown ends a whole host of adaptations will be needed. Perhaps keeping prices low, being resourceful and economical with suppliers, and feeding proximate communities will be key to viability when much has been lost and much else remains uncertain.

“I’m having weird daydreams about becoming a quiche factory because that’s what I’d want to take away,” Tobias said.

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