by Hattie Hartman
The first lockdown witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of community support networks, hand-clapping for the NHS and neighbour helping neighbour. As the seemingly endless months of London’s third lockdown wore on, pandemic fatigue and isolation set in. Yet during the darkest winter months, a determined group of local residents quietly established new networks, cooked nourishing meals and delivered them to those in need in our community.
Dubbed ‘Neighbourhood Nosh’, the volunteer initiative seeks to serve those in food poverty by distributing delicious plant-based meals on a regular weekly schedule. The first indication of something new afoot was the appearance around Primrose Hill of alluring posters affixed to lamp posts. The posters captured the ethos of Neighbourhood Nosh, calling for people to share their skills and time, donate food, contribute to running costs, and of course to identify those who could benefit from the meals.
Like many good ideas, Neighbourhood Nosh’s promising start was a convergence of circumstances, timing and a handful of committed individuals. The seed of the idea grew out of the Oldfield Lunch Club (suspended due to Covid), which has been operating under the auspices of the Primrose Hill Community Association since 2010, and the fact that a new kitchen (courtesy of Roundhouse kitchens) had been installed on the Community Centre’s small mezzanine on the eve of lockdown. Local resident Nikki Hayden had volunteered both at the Oldfield Lunch Club and at the Chalk Farm Food Bank, so she brought insider knowledge of both communities’ needs. Primrose Hill Community Association trustee Doro Marden, another volunteer, spearheaded Association support and a fundraising appeal for an additional fridge and freezer.
Volunteers coalesced around the idea of offering meals at lunchtime on Thursdays, timed to coincide with the hours of the Food Bank, whose visits tripled in 2020. Neighbourhood Nosh deliberately started small and local. Donations were solicited from the shops on Regent’s Park Road, with support forthcoming from Yeoman’s, Greenberry, Andy at Primrose Hill Butchers through his contacts at a Sainsbury’s in east London, together with Helen Sweeney and Zam from Primrose Corner, as well as Ben’s, Shepherds Foods, and further afield, Parkway Greens.
The arrival of JC, aka Jean Christophe Slowik, charismatic ex-owner of L’Absinthe who embraced the role of volunteer chef, instantly bolstered Primrose Hill’s nascent community food project. JC responded to the Community Association newsletter’s callout for volunteers and rapidly emerged as chief animator and raconteur of Neighbourhood Nosh’s weekly Zoom calls. A veteran of almost two decades at the side of Marco Pierre White and 11 years at the helm of L’Absinthe, JC combines cooking expertise with deep managerial know-how. In a recent interview from his home overlooking Ally Pally, JC observed, “One thing I’ve learned from many, many years of working for Marco is troubleshooting and fixing. I’m very good at reacting quickly to a situation. The fear of all of us was that we would start something that we could not sustain. So we decided to start on a very small scale because this was feasible.”
Equally important, JC understands and cherishes Primrose Hill’s strong sense of community. Describing the early success of L’Absinthe and the positive reviews in the broadsheets that attracted diners from as far away as Croydon, JC explains that he was convinced that L’Absinthe would only succeed on the tricky corner location where three restaurants had failed in the preceding five years if he could build a local clientele. And that’s what he set about doing, even finding love in Primrose Hill and marrying his hairdresser, Karmen Alcala of Hackett’s, in 2017. When L’Absinthe’s lease came due in 2018, JC opted against renewal in favour of a new horizon. He has since established Vinsducru Ltd, a small wine company that sells to private clients in north London. “We had a very close relationship with the community, helping with the summer fair and the library campaign. That’s what brought me back; I wanted to help when Neighborhood Nosh started,” JC explains.
Cooking and delivering a few dozen meals weekly may sound simple, but in fact it’s an organisational feat which Neighbourhood Nosh’s core group of ten has perfected over recent months, putting their considerable energy, life experience and connections into the project. At the time of going to press, over 120 meals per week are regularly being cooked and distributed. Regulars now receive meals on Tuesdays as well, with extra food provided by Greenberry’s until the recent ease of opening restrictions. It’s all about building networks: sourcing the food, marshalling volunteers, and delivering to people in need. “The volunteer team has been amazing. Everyone actually does what they say they are going to do,” says Sally Mackenzie, responsible for sourcing supplies. Because of the unpredictability of food deliveries from the local shops, Mackenzie looked further afield. Through an introduction from London Borough of Camden’s Covid response officer, Neighbourhood Nosh was fortunate to partner with the Felix Project, a London charity which collects surplus food from over 450 supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurants and distributes it to frontline charities. Another charity, City Harvest, has recently joined the suppliers.
Neighbourhood Nosh is currently a Tuesday-to-Thursday almost military-like operation, supported by a 25-strong volunteer list, ably coordinated each week by Sue Bolsom. The Felix Project and City Harvest deliver to the Community Centre on Tuesdays, when JC surveys the week’s supplies and determines on the spot what he’ll cook the next day. Because the whole enterprise depends on donations, some weeks are abundant while others are lean.
A first round of Tuesday volunteers preps for Wednesday (mostly vegetable chopping). If any ingredients are missing, JC collects them on his way home. A text to Phil at Yeoman’s, well-known to JC from his L’Absinthe years, takes care of any missing vegetables, which Yeoman’s delivers to the Community Centre early Wednesday.
Wednesdays is JC’s cooking day. Until March, he was ably assisted by George Barton, a young ex-chef who lives locally. Sometimes volunteers accustomed to home cooking are taken aback by the quantities. JC explains, “We’re talking industrial cooking. You don’t chop five courgettes, you chop 10 kilos of courgettes. Every time, we try to do something different. Last week, we were given some chocolate from KFC ‒ I believe it’s what they use to make hot chocolate, so we made a chocolate mousse, and actually it was a very nice chocolate mousse.” Additional volunteers – all socially distanced on the Community Centre’s tiny mezzanine ‒ chop, wash up, package and store the day’s production. According to JC, it’s now “a very slick operation. Cooking 25 meals the first day was much harder than the 100+ we did last week, because I probably had a casual approach and thought I could turn up and cook anything, but in fact half the equipment was missing.” The biggest challenge is chilling food rapidly so that it can be refrigerated. The purchase of a blast chiller has been has been put on hold with the ever creative JC using ice water ‘bains maries’ to cool down soups and stews.
“Wednesdays are a beautiful day for me,” says JC. “It has been eye-opening because it made me realise that although I might not have much in my life, I have so much. This is the 21st century, and for some of the people from the Food Bank who come, that bag of food has got to last them a week. It’s tough for lots of people. This grounds you,” he says.
On Thursday mornings, Hopkinson’s Mews buzzes as volunteers lay out welcoming stalls ready for collection from 11 am. Neighbourhood Nosh meals, individually bagged and labelled so that recipients know what they’re eating, sit alongside an array of fresh produce and tinned goods from the Felix Project and City Harvest. In addition to twice-weekly deliveries next door to Oldfield, approximately 40 meals currently go to the Family Support programme at The Winch, a children and young people’s charity behind the Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre in Winchester Road. The Family Support programme caters primarily to single mums with under-fives in the Swiss Cottage area and on Chalcot Estate.
Winch staff member Page Victor reports that the single mums, many of whom have been extremely isolated during the pandemic, have found “the care and quality of the Neighbourhood Nosh meals extremely nurturing”. “I wanted to say that the broccoli soup from last week was delicious – the best I’ve had,” read one of numerous appreciative texts that Page received. Broadening its community networks further, Neighbourhood Nosh
It’s still early days for Neighbourhood Nosh. “A lot of it has been hard work, and a lot of it has been luck. Everybody has just given. Local businesses have given and the volunteers have given. It’s been very uplifting. But we must ensure that we are meeting the need,” observed one regular volunteer. It can be a challenge to work out who needs support, because people in need often stay quiet.
As for what’s next, Primrose Hill Community Association are in negotiation with Oldfield to get back into their large catering kitchen, running a lunch club there again while keeping up deliveries to others in need. And then the kitchen at the community centre will be available for other food initiatives– a Drop In café? Cooking classes? A supper club? A ‘community fridge’ to tackle waste food? Watch this space!
For more information or to volunteer, contact [email protected].
If you could make a donation to help with costs of the project, please go to www.phca.cc/donate