Lockdown Legend: the Londoner bringing together top chefs to make food for NHS staff

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron
Features Editor, Time Out London
Lockdown Legend
Illustration: Time Out

When London went into lockdown, Oli Coles was about to launch a new business. Working in the hospitality industry, his plans were put on pause and he set about thinking about how he could use his time well instead. Coles also runs a digital marketing agency and initially he was considering ways he could help his clients – hotels, restaurants, bars. Eventually he came up with Hospitality for Heroes, a scheme which keeps chefs busy and producers in business, all while cooking up restaurant-quality meals for NHS staff. Chefs involved include Sally Abé, head chef of the Harwood Arms (London’s only Michelin-starred pub), Matt Abé from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Rose Ashby, head chef of Spring at Somerset House. 

When this all happened, both of my companies were almost put on hold. My initial thinking with this was how can I support some of my clients and keep them busy? The obvious answer was to just do some deliveries and market them through social media to local areas. But then it stepped up a notch. As soon as the news was coming out about how overwhelmed and exhausted NHS staff were, that made me think a little bit bigger. 

I’ve got a background in start-ups and I feel like I’ve set up a start-up in two weeks. I’ve done the branding and the website. The logistics are the most difficult thing. To get food to the hospitals we have to go through the right sources, make sure we deliver a list of allergens and make sure it’s delivered at a certain time in the right kind of packaging. Then at the same time we’re managing the fundraising and social media campaign in the background, it’s definitely a challenge. But it’s been quite a show of the hospitality community coming together.

We’re completely not for profit. Myself and others volunteering aren’t taking anything from this. All the money from our crowdfunding campaign goes towards purchasing fresh produce and PPE for the chefs. We’ve managed to get the cost per meal down to about £2.

All the chefs are giving up their time. Many of the head chefs aren’t furloughed but they’re really keen to help out. I think the chef mentality is one where they want to be busy and creating things. 

Social distancing in kitchens can be hard, especially in small kitchens. We have an amazing chef, Liz Howard, who’s taken over London Cooking Project Kitchen on her own because of social distancing – she was concerned about putting her housemate at risk by cooking with others. She’s been churning out 100 meals a day on her own. A lot of the restaurants have seating areas so they’ve set up tables where food can be prepped with everyone standing two metres apart. Everyone’s adapted really quickly to it.

Last week we delivered 3,000 dishes. We’ve got 30 deliveries going out over a five-day period. In week one we had a company called Meal Hub come forward and offer their services for next to nothing and as it’s ramped up, Green Pale Dot have given us their vans, drivers and petrol all donated for free.

The food we’re making is quite a mixture. We have some requests from hospitals for food that is basically ready to go into the oven, so that would be lasagnes or pies. At Carousel last week, we were donated a lot of venison meat so we created a venison noodle dish.

I’ve spoken to a lot of guys at Covent Garden Market who say that some produce is scarce but our chefs have been pretty creative with what we can get them. I think it could become a problem as we start to ramp up, but because of the cause, lots of suppliers are donating produce.

From this week we’ve been doing 1,500 dishes a day across five or six different restaurants. We’ve had enquiries from chefs all over the country saying that they’d love to provide food for their local hospitals. These sorts of initiatives are quite commonplace in London now but there are other areas of the UK that aren’t doing this sort of thing. If we can increase the donations that come in then that could allow us to expand that 1,500 meals to many thousands across the country.

We’re looking at supplying some service departments who are currently housing quite a few NHS staff. We’re hoping to deliver meals that are ready to go in the oven, so they can come back to a healthy meal that they don’t need to prepare. We’re also delivering to some veterans and we’re talking to Age UK to see if we can deliver dishes to the elderly.

I’ve been getting messages through our Instagram channel on a daily basis from nurses and doctors thanking us or requesting our food. That really does keep us going. The feedback has been fantastic and it’s really nice to receive.

Read more stories of amazing Londoners:

The Londoner who started the Clap for Our Carers campaign for the NHS.

This Londoner is hosting aerobics classes from his doorstep.

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