Great Britain

Help The Hungry: Behind the scenes at the dark kitchen cooking up an answer to food poverty

I

n a basement car park in Westminster a group of chefs, wrapped in coats to fend off the cold of the dark November morning, are sorting through the day’s delivery. It would be a typical enough scene – the kind that has played out in London millions of times before – were it not for three things: none of them are being paid, all of the food is free, and the building they are taking it through will not host a single customer.

The delivery of repurposed produce from The Felix Project to the kitchen team at With Compassion is a crossing point in a mass voluntary exercise fuelled by The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign. Today’s drop off includes beautiful squashes of every shape imaginable and sacks of ruby-red quinoa leaving the chef team led by Ernest Oparaocha to cast trained eyes over the ingredients and decide how best to cook it up and serve it to hundreds of people a few hours later.

“Every day is something new,” the 54-year-old south Londoner tells The Independent. “There’s no menu planning here, we plan the menu on the day. You look at what’s coming in and you work around that.”

The setup at London Scottish House, a military building turned cultural centre, is one of the capital’s many “dark kitchens” – a base of operation where food is made without any dining hall or canteen to serve it in. It is a term commonly associated with restaurant brands that exist only within the confines of delivery apps and websites while staff working in portable cabins or industrial units. In this instance, the team from With Compassion works to produce meals that can be loaded on to food trucks and served to those in need – an initiative made possible by the support of those who have donated to our Help The Hungry campaign.

From the vantage point of the site’s stovetops the difference between a dark kitchen and a traditional setup is hard to spot. Chefs are still racing against the clock to get prepped up and ready to go for service. Staff are still bantering as they work with pride to produce the best food they can. Instructions are still shouted over roaring ovens, ringing timers and clashing steel.

There’s also plenty of experience in the room. Paul Kimpson, 65, spent decades as an executive chef at private hospitals before retiring to the Philippines. Within a week of returning to the UK to see his grandchildren earlier this year, he found himself back in the kitchen as part of With Compassion serving those in need. “You can see they’re desperate, you can see they haven’t got much,” he says. “One of my friends unfortunately died of Covid, and that’s given me the urge to come out and try to give something for nothing and help”.

Head downstairs, away from the site’s established kitchen, and things start to look a little more unorthodox. London Scottish House was designed as a drill hall in the 1800s, and still bears striking Victorian metalwork and looming military portraits. It has played host to formal dances, war recruitment drives and inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic. Today, it is filled with people peeling potatoes.

The nomadic kitchen team prepping away have adapted several times already, moving from the home of the Saracens rugby team to the state-of-the-art kitchens of Wembley Stadium and the vast halls of Alexandra Palace – and now here. With floors covered in protective plastic, meal prep and packing is carried out by those willing to give up a few hours a week to support the cause. All of them have different reasons for turning up – inspired to fix food poverty, to tackle the effects of the pandemic, or as a means to keep busy in a world that lost all its structure to the virus.

For Rebecca Matthews, who worked as a corporate sales manager before Covid, sustainability was at the forefront. “We’re taking surplus food and food waste from The Felix Project which would have ended up in landfill and contributed to climate change, but then turning that into nutritious meals that we can supply to those that really need them,” the 38-year-old says.

At the end of a long day of work Oparaocha, who was furloughed in March and took voluntary redundancy after working with contract catering firm BaxterStorey, says he has forged a new relationship with the environment he has built a livelihood around. “It’s completely different from working in a professional kitchen. There is pressure to get the food out but it’s a different kind of pressure, it’s a friendly pressure. I come here and I’m never angry.”

He came to With Compassion through the recommendation of a friend a week after the charity began its drive to tackle hunger in capital. “At first I thought, ‘Not getting paid? No chance. I’m not doing it… nothing in life is free.’” Seven months later, he has had a hand in producing well over 100,000 free meals for people who need help. “No one should go to bed hungry and I’m a strong believer in that,” he says.

This November and December we will be delivering food directly to 1,000 people a day through our partner With Compassion. Please donate here to help us do all we can to ensure no one goes hungry this Christmas.

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