I was deeply moved by the stories featured in True Loaf issue 52. Leo Maxlhaieie’s description of Mozambique bakeries had me pining for the corner shop bakeries and simpler times I grew up with in Johannesburg. It yet again reminded me of how important bread is and the potential it has for galvanising social change. Bread has catalysed revolutions and toppled regimes. It is a primary food and a key indicator for the stability of our food system and economy.
Teaching bread making is a key part of the work we do at Community Chef. I’m proud to say that, in the 20 years I’ve been running this organisation, we’ve taught over twenty thousand people to cook and make bread. I’ve also trained over two thousand cookery leaders to use cooking and baking as tools for promoting health, sustainability and wellbeing.
London, Brighton, India
While I’ve cooked and baked since childhood, I fell into the food industry, as many do, quite by chance. I moved to the UK in 1990, aged 18, and went straight into the family business in Hatton Gardens. After five claustrophobic years in London, I made the difficult decision to move to Brighton and study full time at the University of Sussex. It was the best choice I could have made: seaside living, a social life, parties and protests suited me down to the ground. I also started working in kitchens and developing a healthy disregard for capitalism, convention and conformity.
While I enjoyed being a student and the dynamism of restaurant kitchens, it was the energy of mid ‘90s direct action that resonated deeply with me. It cemented a desire to live a low impact, socially helpful and ethically sound life. This energy was further intensified after living for a year in an ashram in northern India. The principle activity of this international community was feeding people from disempowered, low caste backgrounds, guided by the philosophy of karma yoga: selfless action for the good of all.
Baking back in Blighty
I returned to the UK with a loose plan to set up a project focussing on empowering people and democratising the food system. I had no idea where to start, I also had no money. The prospect of working in commercial kitchens did not appeal to me at all. A friend mentioned that the local wholefood co-op, Infinity Foods, had some shifts going in the bakery and he could get me a trial. Working in a co-op ticked many of my boxes: non-hierarchical, environmentally responsible and fairly-paid.
While I’d made bagels and challah as a youngster, I had very little real understanding of baking. My first shift started at 4am on a winter Monday morning but by the time I finished, I was hooked. I loved the physicality and meditative repetition of bread making. I loved the simple alchemy of basic ingredients and the merry logistical dance of time, temperature and fermentation. I enrolled at the local technical college to do NVQs in bakery and patisserie and worked as a baker on and off for three years.
Becoming a social enterprise
At the same time I was developing Community Chef. With a small grant from The Scarman Trust (now defunct), I set up a not-for-profit association and started voluntarily running workshops and demonstrations to promote healthy and ethical eating. I mostly worked with older people and refugees, while making my living baking, gardening and catering for events. I got a big break in 2003, when my project was picked up by a National Lottery funded, NHS hosted food partnership. It was a dream come true. I was part of a team with an office, computers, a new van and a healthy budget for training, equipment and ingredients. We worked mainly with disadvantaged people, supported local producers, cooked tons of food and gave it away. We ran countless cookery and baking classes and had a lot of fun.
After three years the funding ran out and, sadly, the NHS chose not to mainstream the work. I was very proud of what we had achieved, though. I knew this work had legs and there was no way I was going to let it fall by the wayside and into the vaults of history. The birth of my daughter in 2005 was the motivation I needed to move forward. Now knowing that charitably-funded projects are hyper-vulnerable, I re-established Community Chef as a social enterprise with the ability to generate the income essential for long-term stability. Seventeen years in and we are thriving!
We have always run a blended programme of community cookery activities. We secure our own funding and generate income through a variety of services including commissioned community food work, event catering and public demonstrations. We are currently running projects in three counties, working with homeless people, refugees, unpaid carers, people with mental health challenges and our Man With A Pan project for isolated older men.
One of our most successful projects is The Lewes Community Kitchen. I originally set it up to have a base from which to work. I also wanted to create a bakery and food hub that also offered affordable kitchen space for start-up food businesses. It has become a much used and loved community hub. From here we ran the not-for-profit Lewes Bread Club for three years and the kitchen is still used every day for teaching and catering. We also host a bakery apprentice scheme delivered by Plumpton College.
Our long-term plan is to continue delivering community food activities, while also training and supporting other projects. We are currently planning how to grow the community kitchen into a larger training and enterprise facility.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 53, January 2023