Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts + Beetroot Haggis
Many Voices Many Kitchens this week had the pleasure of talking to Lewis MacLachlan, founder of Edinburgh’s Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts and recent recipient of a Points of Light Award for outstanding individual volunteering, about increasing access to healthy food in local communities, cheffing during COVID, and how to turn a surplus of beetroot into delicious vegan haggis.
SWK: What is Empty Kitchens, Full Hearts?
LM: We’re a movement of volunteer chefs responding to COVID-19. We take food donations and then convert them into breakfasts, lunches, dinners and treats. Community volunteers then package these meals and deliver them across Edinburgh to anybody who needs them, completely free of charge. We don’t means-test anyone, as we believe that food is a universal right, so if someone gets in touch to say that they’re struggling with access to food then we can help them, no questions asked. We’ve around 350 volunteers just now, and have had a total or around 600 since we first started, and together we’ve rescued around 3 or 4 tonnes of food from waste each week, which totals over 105 tonnes of food!
SWK: How did you start EKFH?
LM: I reached out to chefs I knew personally and then set up a couple of crowdfunders and lobbied a local community kitchen to let me in. Within a couple weeks we were beginning to cook and supply for local people! And since then it’s grown from strength to strength, in just one day recently we sent out 880 packs as well as feeding everyone who came to us directly. We’re just about to hit the 330,000 total meals mark!
SWK: Where does your food originally come from?
LM: Supermarkets, food suppliers and other third sector initiatives like Fareshare. We managed to source food quickly just by going down the hospitality supply chain and seeing how much food could be saved after lockdown. It’s been amazing how quickly it’s grown, to the point where we now have no need to worry about sourcing food. At the same time, though, we also get so many people reaching out to us and saying that they are struggling to access food, so really we’re just glad to be in a position where we have enough to supply all those people. And on top of that, being able to see chefs come in, whose lives have been severely disrupted as well, and see them given a fresh purpose and new community through our work, has been incredible.
SWK: Speaking on that, how do you find volunteer chefs?
LM: Initially it was people I already knew, but now it’s more of an organic movement. The majority of the chefs we have right now are people I’ve only met through doing this and it’s people with all sorts of backgrounds, including those who’ve been professional chefs for ten years, cafe workers, or those like myself who’ve worked in five-star hotels for most of their careers, a real spectrum of experiences.
SWK: Having all those people working together must be amazing!
LM: It really is! None of us are really coming from positions of strength. All the chefs, workers, volunteers and supportive businesses we work with, they’ve all been left with so few options and prospects due to the pandemic. But at the same time, they’ve all realised that they have skills or attributes that they can use positively, and that has been truly inspiring to see.
SWK: Was there much of a cheffing community in Edinburgh prior to EHFK?
LM: Not particularly. Chef communities in general tend to be close-knit socially and professionally, but in terms of a unified political voice, that’s something that’s really been lacking from the industry.
Working conditions for chefs are, more often than not, diabolical. For instance, I’ve worked in a number of five-star hotels but have never once received the hourly minimum wage. It’s standard practice to give chefs 40-hour contracts on or around minimum wage, but then those chefs end up working 60 or 70 hours a week instead with no overtime payments. And people will say that it’s just the nature of the industry because nobody wants to pay what food is actually worth, but even so, there’s still a commonality where the owners tend to be the ones getting richer while the chefs barely make enough to get by. And because of that, the chef population is increasingly close to the poverty line, despite working in a luxury industry.
SWK: That’s absurd!
LM: You can see it in the lack of community response to the lockdown. There hasn’t been a particularly strong voice speaking up on behalf of chefs. And don’t get me wrong, we’re all passionate about our work, but financially we’re also so reliant on the false economy of tipping, which is of course the thing that’s now disappeared. And furlough doesn’t take tips into consideration.
Of course, I get that business owners are under a lot of pressure themselves, so I don’t think it’s all on them, but there’s still a lot to be said for the workers who are being completely swept aside and who’ve often had to endure difficult working conditions, yet still find themselves being dropped the moment the business is under threat.
SWK: How does EKFH coordinate what food to make each day?
LM: Generally we don’t know what food is going to come in. We receive the majority at night, so the chefs arrive in the morning and sometimes there’ll be loads of veg that you look at and immediately want to turn into a stir fry. Other times we end up with loads of one thing, for instance there was one time we had two tonnes of beetroot without any protein, so we had to be more creative. For that, we ended up making beetroot haggis, beetroot soups and beetroot chutneys! But overall, the kitchen has complete control over the menu. Our only two directives are that everything should be microwavable and that each dish should use as many vegetables as we can.
SWK: Beetroot haggis sounds interesting – how was it?
LM: Delicious! We basically did haggis, neeps and tatties, only it was beetroot haggis, tandoori roast tatties and honey-fried parsnips – I would actually put it on a restaurant menu! It was contemporary, multi-disciplinary, and really tasty!
In general, we do have a few staple dishes like stovies, stews, curries and pastas. We try to keep it easily understandable and not be too fancy. Yes, we like to show that there are other things you can do with veg, but we’re also not trying to say that everyone should be vegetarian or vegan as well. If there’s a dish without meat and you’re a meat-eater, it’s just because we didn’t get enough meat coming in that day.
SWK: How have you found community response and engagement overall?
LM: It’s tricky for me to differentiate between community response and our own operation, just because we’ve got so many volunteers. But it should also be said that loads of them haven’t volunteered in their adult lives before they come to us. There’s a huge group of young people who maybe did something like the Duke of Edinburgh when they were at school, but since then nothing really. And I’m the same, I’ve done a couple of charity dinners but apart from that never really volunteered in my adult life. One of the hidden opportunities of COVID is that people have suddenly got more time on their hands and not a lot of options for how to spend it. So I think in some ways, volunteering ends up being a nice distraction or a support network during this time.
We’ve also now got a number of volunteers who started off as clients, which is fantastic to see. There’s a tendency for the third sector to be primarily made up of middle-class people, just because they’re the ones who generally have the time to be able to do it, and so to be able to say that we’ve helped to foster a space for everyone in the community regardless of class is great. We’ve had some people come in and say that they’ve always wanted to cook but have never had the time to pursue it, and then on the other hand we’ve had long-time chefs who’ve wanted to leave the kitchen for ten years plus who we’ve been able to give admin experience, so it really has been wonderful to bring everyone together.
SWK: Would you say that there’s an education aspect to EHFK as well?
LM: It’s more hands-on than formal education! But certainly in terms of societal realism it’s often taught people a lot. For instance, just by placing people from more well-off backgrounds on the front line where they get to serve people they otherwise wouldn’t normally interact with and allowing them the experiences of giving and receiving gratitude alongside those people has really helped to break down barriers.
SWK: What’s your view on the way that the lockdowns have been targeting and affecting the hospitality sector?
LM: I think that if you look at what’s come out of bodies like SAGE then it’s clear that the value of hospitality has been under-rated. Figures they produced said that closing hospitality could cut the R Number by 0.2, which isn’t minor and will save lives, but if you look at what other things could’ve been restricted instead, but weren’t, then you can also see all the politics involved in that decision, which really goes back to the lack of strong leadership voices within hospitality. So now a lot of hospitality has to work out that balance for themselves between trying to be sensible and not put people in dangerous positions while also having to support their workers.
Plus, I think that we’ve really shown that there can be other options too and that hospitality businesses and staff can be used to have a positive impact. Local councils own so many canteens and these could all be used to provide the same services that we do. Because of this, I’m really glad that recently there’s been more of a spotlight placed on food poverty, especially with people like Marcus Rashford speaking out about the free school meals. But we should also think about what will happen to those same kids once they move into life and become part of the larger community. There are so many benefits to a well-fed population, both mentally and emotionally as well as in terms of things like work-productivity or ability to heal up after sickness and injury. How are you going to have happy communities without easily accessed healthy food? We’ve had district nurses reaching out to us asking if we can supply meals for some of their patients, which of course we’re happy to do, but at the same time it’s such an indictment on a society that just doesn’t see the real importance in food.
SWK: What do you see in the future for EKFH?
LM: We want to become redundant as soon as we can, in a sustainable way. The Edinburgh Poverty Commission recently claimed that there were around 9,000 people in the city who counted as destitute. And they’ve set a target to remove everyone from that destitution by 2030, which works out at around 900 people per year. Well, we’ve currently got 850 people actively signed up on our client list and in total we’ve had almost 2,000 people who’ve signed up for the service in the past, so I think just looking at those figures it becomes clear that we offer a great opportunity to continue to help alleviate extreme food poverty.
We’ve also been moving from place to place since March, so currently we’re looking for a more permanent base. And once we’ve done that we’ll be asking if there’s anyone in Glasgow, Stirling, Falkirk, Aberdeen, Dumfries or anywhere else who would like to do something similar for their own communities as well. There is no reason why things like EKFH shouldn’t be everywhere.
SWK: What’s the best way for people to support you?
LM: Write to your local politicians and tell them that they should be supporting food charities with more than just words.
Ultimately, as well, funds make it possible. We run a pretty tight ship and are only able to do so thanks to our volunteers and food donations. We’ve been grateful to receive support from people like Fishers Laundry, who’ve given us access to chef jackets and trousers so that all our volunteers can have single-use clothing, as well as so many other organisations who’ve donated things to us like blast chillers, which would normally cost £10,000, so things like that help too!
Also, we are a community group! So if people want to come and volunteer with us, all they have to do is get in touch via emptykichens.co.uk. In the last few months, demand for our food packs has increased at a rate of 5.5% weekly, which means that we’ve basically doubled in size every 3 months. And yet, in terms of funding, we’ve spent less than an MSP’s salary to fund almost 1/3 of a million meals, which I think you’d agree puts incidents like Matt Hancock’s recent £50,000 takeaway bill in an interesting light!!
So yes, we’re always grateful for any and all support. Even if you just know someone in the food production, tell them about our need for ingredients and kitchen equipment. Or if you know car dealers, then tell them about our need for vans to deliver our meals. And definitely do make sure that you write to your local MP, MSP and councillor to tell them that you want to live in a world where food is a human right, and ask them what they’ll do to realise that vision.
Lewis also provided us with the recipe for beetroot haggis, which I can confirm is just as delicious as he claimed!
(This is probably enough for about 15 portions!)
1 tin of red kidney beans
1 tin of chickpeas
1 kg of beetroot, roasted then peeled
2 large onions
1 bulb of garlic, like all good things.
1 kg oats
Cracked black peppercorns, white ground pepper, salt, ground mace, coriander seeds.
Give your beetroots a wash, keep the skin on, splash them with oil and salt and roast them, like everything, at 180oC. How long for? ‘Til it’s cooked! Take the biggest one out after 30mins and poke it with a knife. If it’s soft as butter, it’s ready. If it’s still tough, back in the oven with it.
Once ready, let them cool a bit so you don’t burn yourself. Open your tins, drain them, chuck beans and chickpeas in a bowl and shmush ‘em with your hands, adding in a hearty pinch of salt and half the oats.
Peel the cooked beetroots. If you have a blender, blend them up. If not, grate them, then mix with the oatey beanie mush.
Peel and dice onions, chop your garlic (chef tip, cut the bottom off the bulb, put it in the microwave for 20secs and the cloves will just squeeze out par cooked and ready to go!)
Big pan, oil, heat. Onions fry. When they’re kinda see-through, add your garlic.
Then, a bit of salt and spices. Give it a 1min stir and pop the mush in, one big spoon at a time, keeping it all moving on a low heat.
Once it’s in, judge it for yourself! If it’s too wet, then add more oats. Too dry, add more water. It’s also all ready-to-eat stuff, so taste it as you cook, and if you want it spicier then add more spices.
Enjoy! Or even if you don’t, as long as you’re trying to cook, make sure you play with your food and have fun making and eating it! Food is the one constant in your life, you have the right to enjoy it!