It’s seven o’clock in the evening, and Katie unlocks the door after a long twenty-hour shift at the Queen’s Medical Centre. Her face is bruised and blistered from wearing her mask, but she doesn’t care. She’s exhausted, drained. Frown lines sketch her forehead. She reaches inside her handbag, where a tub of sticky toffee pudding sits, delivered to the hospital earlier that day. As it heats the sauce bubbles beautifully. She grabs the biggest spoon in her cupboard and scoops up a syrupy heap of sponge. It’s the most comfort she’s had all day.
Josh hears the doorbell chime. He’s been living in a hostel in Mansfield for a couple of weeks, and he’s just got his head around changing the sheets. He’s not quite sure about working the oven, but beans from the local shop stuck in the microwave have been doing him just fine. Then he answers the door. A friendly face greets him with a box full of meals for him and his new mates. They warm up the food, vegetable moussakas all round. Josh takes a mouthful and smiles. It’s just how he imagined proper home-cooked food. His mum was never able to make that.
On the other side of Nottingham sits Adam Roberts, hunched over his computer. He’s been working 8am until 11pm since Wednesday 18 March, coordinating teams of volunteers and working strings behind the scenes to make this happen. He’s founded Open Kitchens – a brand new community food delivery initiative. The idea came from him running a food digital marketing agency, and seeing first-hand the immediate impact COVID-19 had on the industry.
“The industry collapsed overnight. I was talking to lots of restaurants at the time who were accepting that this wasn't a period where you could make money. I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do to help,’” he tells me. “On a human level, I came up with the idea and thought I couldn’t not make it happen.”
It's arguably the best way to get nutritious food to the people in our communities that desperately need it and put a smile on their faces in the process. It will help save lives
With his specialised team all onboard, they decided to create a concept, system and brand that restaurants could get involved with. Essentially, they pledge to make a certain amount of meals and host a Just Giving page with Open Kitchens, who then deliver that food for them. They’re currently running their pilot in Nottingham, and so far they’ve delivered 10,000 meals to key workers and vulnerable people in the area. “It’s powered by the notion that restaurants can cook for their communities, with help from their communities. We all need feeding, but people also want to enjoy good food,” Adam says.“The beauty of this is the brilliant food cooked by people whose lives and passions it is.”
Typically working 40-60 hours a week, chefs and restaurant workers are used to working long hours, powered by a love of what they do. Having that taken away from them so suddenly was a shock. Bar manager of Trent Navigation, Sam Ditchfield, says, “I was going to look for some volunteer work just to keep myself busy as I'm used to being on my feet all the time. When my operations manager suggested taking part in Open Kitchens I jumped on it, as not only was it a way to keep me active and give my days a bit of structure, we knew we would be helping the community as well.”
George Ktori, head chef at Yamas, which was the first restaurant onboard, feels the same way: “We're able, we're healthy. We're a family with a restaurant and it’s closed, so doing something to help people was a no-brainer. All my chefs, like us, just wanted to help instead of doing nothing. We're used to doing things, and cooking is what we know and what we're good at.”
Hearty meals that are being cooked by these restaurants include beef stew, vegetable moussaka and vegetable chilli. One of the places Open Kitchens’ volunteers are delivering these to is Queen’s Medical Centre. Sam says: “They’re so busy looking after other people, so it’s nice for them to have someone look after them for a change.” George agrees, smiling, “People can share moussaka – when they get it, I reckon the nurses tuck into it together and pretend they're at the restaurant.”
Not only are these people getting tasty meals that give them a pick-me-up, but the food is also packed with virus-fighting vitamins. “Your immune system is essential to battling it, and these meals are high nutrition,” Adam explains. “There's also the psychology – this is a really delicious meal that gives somebody a lift. For an NHS worker who has a tough day ahead of them or has just come back from a twenty-hour shift and is too tired to cook a meal from scratch, it means they won’t have to cut corners with what they’re eating.”
As well as the doctors and nurses at the QMC, the Nottinghamshire YMCA are also receiving meals, which they are distributing to their hostels and housing across the county. Nick Clements, the housing manager at the YMCA, tells us, “Not everybody that we house is a budding chef – in fact, most of them aren't and don't always eat properly. We serve a broad range of people and a lot of the individuals are homeless and have experienced trauma. Also, a lot of people we accommodate don't always have the independent living skills you and I have.” The charity doesn’t have the budget to cook and deliver lots of food, so when Open Kitchens stepped up to the plate to help them do that, they thought it was fantastic.
“When we see hungry people with big eyes, salivating to eat the food, it's brilliant,” Nick continues. “It's the same feeling as giving somebody keys – you know if it wasn't for you and it wasn't for that bunch of keys, that person would be sleeping on the streets tonight. It's the same with delivering food – if you hadn't delivered that food, they wouldn't have eaten as much and, certainly, it wouldn't have been as nutritious as that.”
For an NHS worker who has a tough day ahead of them or has just come back from a twenty-hour shift and is too tired to cook a meal from scratch, it means they won’t have to cut corners with what they’re eating
They’ve also been wowed by the community spirit of Nottingham rallying behind them. Nick says, “It's a lovely, warming feeling when the community responds that way.” George feels the same way, having seen his customers support Yamas massively during this time, “Customers have been donating money, writing posts – it's all positive, and that's what we need at the moment.”
Other restaurants and cafes across Nottinghamshire that have been pledging their support and making meals include Bar Iberico, Copper, Ugly Bread Bakery, Alchemilla, and even Nottingham Forest. But while this movement has started in Nottingham, it’s clearly set to go nationwide, with restaurants from other counties starting to join in too. Adam tells me, “We've built this with the aim of expanding and becoming a national food solution. There are 50,000 restaurants in the UK and our aim is to activate 10,000 of those as quickly as we can. At that point we'd be able to provide a million meals a day.” He continues, “Hopefully the Government will get behind this too, as there is a concern about how they'll do this on their own. We'd also like to have some of the bigger Nottingham businesses behind us too, like Boots and Experian.”
Adam is also hoping to keep Open Kitchens going after COVID-19. “There's going to be millions of people across the country and the world that need food. On top of that, most restaurants have the capacity to do this at some point during their week, so we're looking at how we can fund the initiative,” he explains. “For example, adding a way to donate a couple of pounds onto a bill could then create a meal for someone in the community surrounding that restaurant. We want it to continue forever, and to roll it out internationally.”
In the meantime Open Kitchens is still growing, helping you to donate to your community in these difficult times. Adam tells us, “It's arguably the best way to get nutritious food to the people in our communities that desperately need it and put a smile on their faces in the process. It will help save lives.” If you can’t afford to donate, you can still help: “We know how hard it is for people's jobs and livelihoods, so if you can't donate financially then please do share the link online, as someone may see it who can donate.”
The meal you donate could be going to a key worker Katie, a vulnerable Josh, or a child who usually gets a free school meal. It's all on our doorsteps. It isn't going to someone at the other end of the country – it is going to someone who could live on the end of your street.