Armed with everything he learned helping Jamie Oliver run the Fifteen apprenticeship programme, and campaign for better school dinners, Danny McCubbin is plotting to push food and social enterprise one step further.
Nearly two decades by Jamie Oliver’s side, off-camera, has taught him more than the skills, also the determination to build purpose into his next venture, from the ground up.
- How did you respond to Marcus Rashford‘s campaign about feeding children?
- How does your new venture help young UK chefs?
This means helping young people to find their own place, their own positive contribution, inside the food system, while training to work in community kitchens. Community kitchens are popping up all over the UK in response to growing food poverty.
“All of Jamie Oliver’s business is centred around how people can lead a better life through food,” he says. “His recipes, the products he develops, his television. His business is now a B-Corp, but back when Fifteen started in 2002 nobody was talking about social enterprises.
“Things are changing at all levels of business. The days of corporate social responsibility and a business just giving money to a charity are over. When people go to work anywhere they want to know what the company is doing about recycling, sustainability, what are we doing for the local community?
“They’re saying, I just walked past a homeless person on my way to this beautiful office. Why aren’t we helping them?
“Fifteen was an extraordinary course for young chefs. It wasn’t just about cooking. They went to farms and learned about food provenance and food waste and food systems. Everything that Jamie’s passionate about. I’m bringing that approach with me.”
He’ll pay young chefs to train for six weeks but they will learn more than just cooking
While UK hospitality has been devastated by lockdowns, leaving many out of work, Danny McCubbin plans to pay young chefs to train for six weeks to learn about cooking in a community kitchen.
“They’ll learn about cooking in bulk, cooking rescued food, and delivering it. Then in the UK, with the help of my contacts, they will be able to either work in community kitchens, set up community kitchens themselves or volunteer.
“They don’t have to be from the UK of course, that’s just where most of my contacts are.
“On my course, they will learn more than how to cook and hygiene standards. They are going to be learning about food systems, food waste and the environment.
“And I will teach about health and wellbeing which is really important because the other side of hospitality is burn out and challenges with drugs and alcohol.
“Helping young people find their place, to live their best lives in a well-functioning food system. No other course does that.”
“Graduates from Fifteen came along and volunteered, it was wonderful”
Economic hardship from lockdown in the face of Covid has seen a proliferation of community kitchens. Given his background, Danny McCubbin was asked to come and help from start, in March last year. The movement gained further impetus when communities supported Marcus Rashford’s call to provide meals during school holidays, as the government declined to.
“Now London councils and the Mayor have put a lot of money into setting up community kitchens. Lots of restaurants are turning into community kitchens. People in local communities are looking at what they can do through food.
“What we need next is a governing body for community kitchens because it needs co-ordination across food surplus charities, chefs and people with goodwill. We need some structure around that.
“Last year when the pandemic hit London lots of food-based charities and community food programmes had to close. I was staying in North Kensington and I was approached by a local resident who’s part of the tight-knit community of people who used to live in Grenfell.
“And she asked if I would set up in a church in Notting Hill. We worked with City Harvest and the Felix project for the North Kensington Community Kitchen, cooking produce that was originally destined for the catering and hospitality industry, so it would have been wasted.
“We had volunteers to cook and we were delivering 1,500 meals a week to mainly children in the Tri-borough Alternative Provision system in North Kensington, hard to reach young people.
“If they weren’t going to school they might not be being fed, so we were sending out food parcels of a home cooked meal.
“I had graduates from Fifteen coming and volunteering, it was wonderful. The Fifteen programme and restaurant closed in 2019, but now a lot of those chefs are out there in the world doing amazing things.
And the best, or maybe the hardest bit? The training kitchen is in Sicily
“This was one of many community kitchens across the UK. Food is the one thing that we can do to help each other, we all have in common, we all need along with air and water. There was a need and people fulfilled that need.”
But we haven’t got to the best part, or perhaps the hardest part of this plan yet. The kitchen he’s going to train these young chefs in is in Sicily, in a house he bought under the 1 Euro Scheme in Mussomeli.
Renovating the house will be costly so he’s launched a crowdfunding campaign.
“Here in Mussomeli I’m starting a food rescue programme and initially I’m working with a priest by the name of Padre Valdecia who’s a priest at the biggest church in the town. He already provides food for a lot of families where jobs have been lost because of Covid.
“I’ll start small with him and we’ll cook food that we will rescue from the supermarkets in the community in the kitchen, and then we’ll deliver the meals.”
Italy as a choice hasn’t come out of nowhere. While working on Fifteen Danny McCubbin came across a drug rehabilitation community in Rimini called San Patrignano. It’s been in the headlines lately because of an unflattering Netflix documentary looking at its early years.
“It’s incredible what Marcus Rashford has done. He’s always calm and gracious and not angry”
“Eventually I asked Jamie if I could go part-time so I could get involved in mentoring at San Patrignano and he said yes, you have to pursue this.
“So much great work is going on in the world from people who trained or worked with Jamie Oliver. It’s thanks to his own sense of purpose and concern for society. He’s an inclusive person. People’s opinions are valued and he listens to everyone. You’re empowered to do what you need to do.”
Having worked in a number of community kitchens, and worked on the school dinners campaign with Jamie Oliver, with the help of formidable dinner lady Nora Sands, Danny McCubbin is right behind Marcus Rashford’s tireless campaigning on behalf of young people during lockdown.
“It’s incredible what’s he’s done. What I really value is he’s always calm and understanding gracious and humble and not angry.
“We should be angry at the government. Those kids were not going to get meals during the school holidays. It’s criminal. How could you do that to children?
“We produced complete, nutritionally balanced meals for £2.25 each”
“But Marcus always maintains his dignity. That’s the way that you make significant change. I have so much respect for him and admire what he’s done.
“You can tell he’s never going to give up as well. He’s not doing it for recognition. He’s not doing it for anything other than he cares about children.”
Back in 2005 Nora Sands had been given a budget of 37 pence per child for lunch. How much does Danny McCubbin think a nutritious meal is worth?
“I went and set up a kitchen with St Mungos homelessness charity in Clapham, in London. It was a programme called Putting Down Roots. We had a grant from the Antonio Carluccio Foundation. And there, we produced complete meals, vegetarian, nutritionally balanced for £2.25. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot or a little. I’d like to know if there is an agreed baseline number these days.”
And for the many struggling through hard economic times in the face of Covid lockdowns, what’s the most nutritious, delicious meal on a budget he can recommend?
“Jamie’s recipe for veg chilli. Sweet potato baked with red kidney beans, onion, tomato-based sauce and brown rice with a bit dollop of yoghurt. It’s a big hearty meal. One of the Ministry of Food recipes. We cooked it a lot in the North Kensington Community Kitchen. It costs pennies.”
“The then CEO of Fortnum & Mason was enamoured with San Patrignano”
The last role he held with Jamie Oliver was Director of Culture – bedding in an approach that allowed staff to integrate their passion for improving society and sustainability into the business.
“I had the best job in the world,” he says. “There’s been a massive shift toward sustainability in corporate culture that started at ground level. Social media is also making businesses and brands accountable. Businesses know they need to do more than giving money.
“When I approach businesses with social enterprise ideas, they are grateful that I’m coming along with opportunities for them to get involved.
“I took the then CEO of Fortnum & Mason, Ewan Venters, to San Patrignano many years ago and he was completely enamoured. He was always looking for ways to make his business better and more sustainable. They partner with the Felix project now and they still stock San Patrignano wines and foods.
“I think we’ll start to see businesses moving away from a corporate social responsibility wing that’s slightly on the margins. Instead they’ll hire Culture Managers who embed strong social values from end to end in a business. It’s a no-brainer to me. Organisations want to improve their culture – this is better than yoga and meditation.”
For chefs and hospitality staff struggling, as well as anyone else, he recommends volunteering at community kitchens.
“No matter who you are look at your community and try to help”
“My best advice is to volunteer,” he says. “Not only will it give you purpose. People from the industry are volunteering as well. You may meet another chef who says we’ve got an apprenticeship going. It gives you an opportunity to network and meet like-minded people. But also means you’re increasing your network of people who can offer you a job.
“No matter who you are, look at your community and try to help. Be neighbourly. Olio is amazing example of what grows out of being community minded. There’s a great project called Chefs in Schools – an ex-employee from Jamie is one of the chefs there.
“So look in your own backyard. Does an elderly person need food delivered? Who can you bake for? You can get such satisfacton that way.
“And look for the good in social media. On Instagram, I have the most beautiful messages from people who like to see that there’s hope in the world.”
You can follow Danny McCubbin on Instagram and support his crowdfunding campaign.