Hospitality For Heroes x Carousel: feeding frontline workers

Hospitality For Heroes x Carousel: #FeedTheNHS

by Lucy Golding 04 May 2020

Lucy Golding joins the team of volunteers at Marylebone restaurant Carousel, prepping, cooking, packing and delivering meals for the NHS via new charity Hospitality For Heroes.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

Lucy is a south London-based former news reporter turned food and drink publicist and writer.

It’s week six of lockdown, and in Marylebone chef Ollie Templeton is back in the Carousel kitchen. Sporting a paisley headband, slogan t-shirt and ankle-length slacks with rolled-up socks, the restaurant’s co-founder and executive chef resembles a culinary indie superhero. It’s a strong and wholly appropriate look, especially considering Carousel’s latest incarnation; a flourishing epicentre producing NHS meals, fuelled by a playlist good enough for Coachella.

A typical day starts at ten, at which time the restaurant fills up with a dozen or so excited volunteers in their twenties and thirties. Masked-up and poised two metres apart, they peruse a sea of fresh faces, a welcome change from the housemates, parents, partners or pets they have been confined to quarantine with since what feels like forever.

Some have walked from as far as Camberwell to be there, others have endured a lengthy cycle or even risked public transport. The majority are furloughed and, before the pandemic, thrived in sectors such as events and communications. Some are students left twiddling their thumbs or sent packing from a year abroad. A handful are professional chefs, from the likes of XU and The Quality Chop House.

Working alongside Ollie is head chef Mark Tuttiett, who eagerly prepares the room distributing aprons, gloves, chopping boards and knives, pouring out cups of coffee to those still struggling with their lockdown body clocks. In the pre-corona world, a typical week for Ollie and Mark would involve cooking alongside one of a multitude of leading international chefs, who are invited to take over the Carousel kitchen for a five- or ten-night residency. Now furloughed themselves, and as the Carousel concept faces its own set of future challenges, the disruption has yet to encroach on the pair’s incessant energy and drive, nor the all-round good vibes the restaurant has become so widely loved for since it opened five years ago.

Itching to get back behind the stove, Ollie and Mark jumped at the opportunity to cater for the capital’s health workers, which presented itself through not-for-profit initiative Hospitality for Heroes, just after lockdown began. Now in week five of meal production, Carousel is proud to be cooking for 300 NHS staff a week, with dishes distributed amongst three London hospitals.

Mark Tuttiett (left) and Ollie Templeton (right) normally work with chefs from around the globe at Carousel – but now they're putting their efforts into feeding NHS workers
Rather than doling out quick, simple dishes, Mark, Ollie and a team of volunteers keep things interesting, diverse and delicious with restaurant-quality dishes

Carousel is one of ten restaurants who signed up to the Hospitality For Heroes scheme in the capital, joining the likes of The Harwood Arms, Spring, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and The Lighterman, all of which are offering their time, teams and kitchens to fuel the frontlines.

Since its inception on 29 March, Hospitality for Heroes has facilitated the production and delivery of an astonishing 23,000 meals across ten London hospitals, with production targets increasing week-on-week.

More than seventy miles away in the Cotswolds, following an early morning dog walk and breakfast with his wife and two young stepchildren, thirty-four-year-old charity founder and digital marketing entrepreneur Oli Coles is working fifteen-hour days to make it all happen.

One-half of web strategists LevyColes and on the brink of launching a second business before the pandemic struck (an app for accessing private members’ clubs across the globe), Oli’s business visions were abruptly side-lined, along with the UK’s restaurant and lifestyle industries. Following a series of panicked calls from his hospitality clients, whilst simultaneously becoming aware of various shortcomings in terms of how charitable food donations were reaching the NHS, Hospitality for Heroes was born.

Oli Coles founded Hospitality For Heroes after devising a better way to organise food donations to the NHS
NHS workers have been sending images of their dishes to Hospitality For Heroes as a way of saying thanks

‘Independent food companies were turning up to hospitals at lunchtimes with pizzas and a lot were going to waste,’ says Oli, who runs the charity alongside head of fundraising Amelia Wix and seven part-time volunteers. ‘A lot of the food being donated also wasn’t hugely healthy. At the beginning of lockdown, when produce in supermarkets was scarce, hospital workers were finishing their shifts totally exhausted, and there was a major lack of good quality, nutritious food available to them. I thought about the number of professional chefs currently not able to work and the fact their kitchens are currently lying empty – not to mention how many people are on furlough right now and looking for something worthwhile to be getting involved with. It all stemmed from there really.’

An Instagram recipe challenge helped to spread the word, kicked off by Social Pantry founder Alex Head. Alex shared her method for a wild garlic risotto, before nominating four industry pals to divulge a dish of their own, and so on.

The daily snaps taken of the volunteers at the end of a busy day prepping and cooking are set to line the walls of Carousel once it can reopen to the public
Cooking is only half the battle – boxing up the meals requires speed and consistency

A month later and hundreds of recipes have since been shared, from chefs including Marcus Wareing, Jeremy Chan and Adam Handling, alongside sporting and television personalities and members of the public. In its first day, the campaign helped to pull in £2,500 to the Hospitality for Heroes GoFundMe page – enough to provide 800 individual NHS meals.

‘After that initial total I thought, I’ll be happy if I get to the £10,000 mark,’ said Oli, whose page total amounts to an impressive £27,000 at the time of writing. As exposure ramped up, the charity was quickly offered a generous £14,000 weekly donation from Critical NHS. Most recently, Hospitality for Heroes bolstered its funds with a silent auction, which pulled in £21,610 in less than two days.

Back at Carousel, Ollie and Mark run through the menu for the week. Today, the volunteers will be preparing and boxing-up portions of comforting braised duck leg with aligot and smoky tomato baba ghanoush, followed by a dessert of sponge cake with tangerine purée, fennel meringue and hazelnut crumb. The week before, the team concocted a dish of spiced grilled chicken with smoked onion mayo and a grilled tomato salsa, followed by pain au raisin cheesecake and chocolate cookies. Before that it was hot-smoked salmon and potato salad, then Bolognese with wild garlic flatbreads.

‘Anyone can prepare big, filling batches of food for hospital workers, but the point is that we’re chefs and we have the expertise and creativity to take things to the next level. Whilst we could easily churn out something quick and straightforward, we don’t want to do that,’ says head chef Mark. ‘The hospital workers deserve to finish a tough shift and enjoy food that’s not only nutritious but prepared with extra care and imagination. That is what Ollie and I are constantly striving to achieve every week, and to showcase the amazing ingredients we’ve been given to work with. We would like to find a way to continue feeding vulnerable communities when this is all over.’

The majority of the volunteers at Carousel are furloughed hospitality and events staff
To thank them for their time and efforts, they get a pretty impressive staff lunch after a morning of hard work

Following a manic morning shredding duck from the bone and mixing bowls of silky, cheesy aligot, it’s time for service. Here, volunteers flex their chef ambitions throughout a high-powered half-hour of boxing up 300 mains and desserts to the backdrop of Ollie’s high-octane playlist. Meals are packed into insulated delivery bags and stacked into the awaiting van, the drivers and petrol of which are part-donated by Eden Caterers and Pale Green Dot.

As the final boxes are packed, Ollie asks the delivery driver to take an obligatory end-of-shift team group shot, now a daily tradition, and something to be framed on the Carousel lavatory walls in the weeks to come. Passers-by look on, baffled at the whooping posse of masked chefs, waving their arms in the air on well-to-do Blandford Street.

The team indulge in applause, before retreating inside to mop the floors, ready to do it all again the very next day. The sense of job satisfaction is immense, and a feeling that many of the volunteers won’t have experienced for almost two months now.

Back in the Cotswolds, the feedback from the frontlines has been flying in via email or the health workers’ Instagram accounts. ‘We’ve heard that staff are running down the corridors to get their hands on one of our meals,’ says Oli, who receives daily requests from hospitals asking to be added to the distribution list.

As the crisis rolls on, the Hospitality for Heroes team is working towards expanding its meal production, not only for the elderly, but NHS staff based in London prisons. They are also investigating catering for school children, whilst the Instagram recipe collection is being made into a fundraising cookbook. Once lockdown restrictions lessen (following a move back to his permanent home in London and a ‘proper pint in a pub’), Oli plans to keep the Hospitality for Heroes efforts rolling. I think it's safe to say there'll be a flood of thanks coming right back at him – along with all the volunteers that make everything possible.

Find out ways to support Hospitality for Heroes here. To donate, visit its GoFundMe page.