Meet the Devon chef cooking hundreds of meals for NHS workers
PUBLISHED: 16:37 22 June 2020
Photo: Steve Haywood
Coronavirus forced him to leave his dream job in London, but chef Richard Henderson has commandeered a Plymouth kitchen to make hundreds of meals for Devon paramedics
Being a chef means hard work and long hours; it’s a notoriously demanding and all-consuming job. So what happens when you suddenly stop?
Since February, Valentine’s Day to be precise, Richard Henderson had been working in London for Tom Aikens at his new restaurant in Belgravia, Muse.
Richard, 26, describes it as “an amazing place” and he was buzzing with the work that consumed his every waking hour, long into the night.
But when lockdown kicked in, he found himself back at home in Devon, with nothing to do.
“It took about a month to adjust to the idea that I wasn’t working. I couldn’t sleep, I wasn’t using any energy and was staying up until 3 or 4am,” he says.
Going on walks with his parents, they’d discuss things he could do, and it was his mum, Debby, who initially found out about Food4Heroes . By raising funds and then teaming up with caterers and restaurants, the charity provides healthy, nutritious and great tasting meals for NHS frontline staff across the country.
Richard loved the idea and volunteered to set up a group in Plymouth. It wasn’t easy finding a kitchen, but help came from one of his former teachers, chef lecturer Richard Farleigh, who helped him set up at City College Plymouth.
From mid-May Richard was able to start cooking 60 meals a day for ambulance staff based at Derriford.
He appealed for chefs to join him and volunteers have spent varying amounts of time helping out. Some are well known chefs, such as Peter Gorton, who Richard knew from early in his training, and Jake Westlake from Moorland Garden Hotel, and Richard Farleigh joined in too.
One mainstay has been Rachael Nosworthy, who’s made time every week, after work, to help out. “The community has been coming together to help, these are passionate people; one guy who came in wasn’t a chef, but he’s a good home cook. So we did a bit of food hygiene training and then off he went.”
Each day Richard leaves home in Yelverton to go to Saltash to pick up ingredients from wholesaler Tamar Fresh. Then he drives to college and, with any additional volunteer help, cooks the meals. They then pack the meals into boxes, wash up, clean the kitchen and deliver the meals to Derriford.
“I was speechless the first day I went to Derriford,” says Richard. “I pulled into this hangar full of ambulances, and they must have thought ‘What’s this guy doing?’.”
But as the weeks went on, the link between Richard and the paramedics deepened, they would come to see him when the meals were dropped off and several connected with him on social media.
Richard has also been cooking meals for 11 healthcare workers who have been shielding at the hospital, having to stay on site throughout the crisis. These are people he will never meet, but that’s ok he says. He finds their situation “really sad”, not being able to go home, but he has gladly cooked a meal for them all each day. He simply drops off the meals at the wellbeing centre where they are put into fridges ready for collection.
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From the outset Richard wanted to make the food special. At first it was homely cooking, like cottage pie, but, he confesses, it was hard keeping up with the mash - he insisted on making it to chef standards.
“It was a lot of mash for 70 people and I don’t do half-hearted mash; so, I steered clear of that after about 10 days!”
One of his favourites has been lamb, slow braising it and making dishes like Moroccan spiced lamb and cous cous, or a Caribbean-inspired jerk dish with rice, peas and beans.
The meals have clearly gone down well, some of the paramedics have asked him for the recipes, which is tricky, he says, “Because I freestyle it most of the time!”
They’ve sometimes made little extras, perhaps a focaccia bread portion or something sweet like a brownie or carrot cake.
And then there are the messages.
Copying an idea Richard had seen in a famous New York restaurant, a card with a handwritten message is attached to each meal box. The cards are designed by a friend, Daisy Muchmore, and the messages are often personal tributes from the chefs, saying how grateful they are to the NHS workers.
Richard is well on his way to hitting his target of 2,000 meals in total before he has to vacate the college kitchens and the charity work will come to an end.
“I’m very lucky that, because my life was put on pause, I’ve got the opportunity to do this,” he says.
“The healthcare workers seem to love it and are so grateful, but at the end of the day we are only doing it because we are so grateful to them.”
Food4Heroes organised a fundraising auction in May which featured lots that included meals and hotel stays, signed shirts, and a bespoke dinner at the Ritz. It raised just over £23,000 for the charity.
Richard offered to do a dinner party for 10 people as one of the prizes. He was thrilled when his lot made £750.
“I’ve no idea who bid for it, but I could be going anywhere!” he says, adding that he is hoping to rope in the services of his friend, Alessandro Calzavacca. Alessandro was the winner of the waiter category in The Young Chef Young Waiter Competition, 2019, and went on to become head waiter at The Dorchester in London. Richard was the winner of the chef title in the same competition.
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