You founded Hospitality for Heroes with Oli Coles last March. How did you and Oli come up with the idea? How did it come about?
There was a clear need in hospitals for healthy nutritious meals and that was the gap we wanted to fill. The idea that there are these NHS staff working super hard and under immense pressure and quite often the canteen in the hospital would be closed and the food provisions nearby might be closed and the supermarkets were a nightmare, so there was this key need. Then the restaurants had been shut so there were these amazing chefs and kitchens sat empty and it was an opportunity to marry the two together and bring some good, healthy restaurant-quality meals to those who were working so hard for us. We were lucky enough to team up with chefs who had to be quite creative. In the beginning, a lot of our food was coming from donations so we were receiving food from FareShare, which was really unknown. I would get a call from them on a Monday evening saying this is what is going to be delivered tomorrow, and we’d have 750 kilos of something delivered but we had no idea what the mix of vegetables or meat was going to be. We’d send it to the chefs and say this is what you’re getting and they’d have the challenge of having to come up with something. They quite enjoyed it.
How easy was it to get chefs on board?
Oli had some really good connections through his previous work, so we managed to get Alex Head from the Social Pantry to come on board early on and she started off our social campaign with the recipe challenge we launched. From that it just grew and we were lucky to have chefs contacting us to say how can I help and that was very much the sentiment at that stage. People just wanted to do something to help and they had time on their hands, so we were quite lucky that it grew from there.
What has been the response to the initiative from the NHS workers?
We always got super nice feedback from the nurses and doctors, which gives you a really great feeling of ‘this is why we’re doing this’, especially near the beginning. We set out to ensure the meals we were donating were going to the right place. Rather than deliver the food directly to the hospital door, we went through a coordinated effort to get to speak to the right teams in hospital who were coordinating the food dispatch to make sure any social needs were being taken care of for the nurses. We also had a lot of doctors and nurses contacting us asking for the meals that they had seen being delivered to other wards – which is how we ended up delivering to 16 hospitals because people were asking ‘Can you support us too?’. We were also seeing posts saying, ‘I’ve just had this amazing meal, it gave me a real boost’.
We also had a very memorable message from one woman, whose sister is a nurse at a hospital. She said ‘I’ve just donated to your website. Thank you so much, my sister’s a nurse and it just means the world to us that she is getting one really healthy meal a day when she is under such immense pressure and we are so far away and can’t support her’. And that was really touching. The first time it was the lack of food, but the second time was a different need. It became more about a social need and a mental health need. Talking to hospitals, it wasn’t about the lack of provision. The second lockdown lacked the spirit of the first, there was no clap for carers but it seems our food was showing the workers that we still care and we are all super grateful for the immense effort they are putting in for all of us.
What is your vision for Hospitality for Heroes post-pandemic?
Oli and I spoke about this. We started out with the objective of doing 200-300 meals a week and we ended up doing 10,000 meals a week. We want to continue with it because it’s a really nice way to thank people who go above and beyond for others, whether that’s the NHS or some other area, which is why we set the company up as a community interest company. But we are running out of funds, which is why we started the recipe book campaign. We can’t afford to buy the ingredients any longer, so we need to have a reset and see where the need is. It’s something that is not defined yet.
You recently created the Recipes for Heroes cookbook, can you tell us a bit more about that?
We started to think about it in July as a nice way of raising funds and also a way of saying thank you to those who have supported us. Then we decided to hold off because around that time things were easing up and we thought it might be more useful to wait for this second wave everyone was talking about. Sure enough, that came about and we started to bring the idea back to life, reaching out to chefs. Everyone was brilliant and really happy to contribute a recipe which is amazing. It spiralled from there. There is a digital and a print copy and we’re using that as a thank you for those who donate a smaller or larger amount on the website as well as thanking those who have supported us along the way. It’s also a bit of a nice reminder about how people came together and all the good that came out of it.
You recently reached the milestone of 100,000 meals delivered to NHS workers, Age UK and prison staff. What is the impact of this for you?
I was made redundant in 2019, and I was job hunting in the sports industry when the pandemic hit. It was a bit of a godsend that I had something to throw myself into. It was a huge challenge: seven days a week, more than any other job I’ve done. And then I was lucky enough to pick up a consultancy gig in June, and now I’m full time on that as well as working on Hospitality for Heroes, so this has become our night/weekend job. It’s hugely rewarding. Something I’ve definitely learned lots from. It’s been a lot of hard work but it’s definitely been worth it for the boost it has given our hardworking NHS staff.
You managed to create partnerships with some of the best chefs and restaurants in the UK, as well as organising the surprise concert for Nurses Day, which involved lots of big-name performers including James Blunt and Mel C, which is pretty impressive. What has been the highlight for you?
The highlight is seeing everyone come together and seeing the response. For the International Nurses Day concert, we found ourselves having to send out 2,000 afternoon teas, trying to scrabble around to find ingredients and everyone wanted to do their bit to help. Companies like Pots & Co have been hugely supportive. People will go out of their way to make it possible. Seeing people jumping into action to make it happen has been really inspiring and humbling. And I’m often bowled over by people’s generosity. We had packaging companies get in touch and donate £20,000 worth of packaging.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt in the past year and how will you carry that forward?
That anything is possible. I’m a relatively strong-willed person anyway but I think looking back, I’ve realised how much more was possible than I could have ever imagined. The cause and the need behind it really helped give me the energy and drive.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given in your career and why?
I tend to get pretty passionate about new projects and some early advice to always count to ten before going into battle was certainly wise! I also like the concept that less is more when putting forward an argument but, overall, if I had to choose just one, it would be to do more listening and less talking.
Who is your role model and how have they influenced you in your work?
I don’t think there is one person that has been my sole role model as there are lots of people that I admire and take learnings from. However, two people that have greatly influenced me are my parents, who have always shown me a strong work ethic and been incredibly generous. I grew up with my father running his own business which from an early age instilled an entrepreneurial spirit in me.
What item, apart from your passport, can you not travel without?
I climbed Kilimanjaro with my hair straighteners in my rucksack, but that was many years ago! Nowadays, I think it has to be my phone, the camera is excellent on it and you can do almost everything from them – it is amazing (and a little bit scary) how indispensable phones have become.
Where is your favourite place to eat in London?
Right now I am a big fan of anywhere that isn’t my kitchen – I really miss being able to eat out. I love the excitement of trying something new and buzzy but there is also a particular joy in returning to the comfortingly familiar. Palomar in Soho is a favourite of mine. You can sit at the bar and watch the food being prepared or have a more relaxed meal at the tables at the back, the food is always delicious and the staff are super friendly.
What do you like to do on a day off?
A great day off for me starts with a spin session so that I don’t feel too guilty about all the eating that tends to become a feature for the rest of the day. A walk in the park with my five-month-old cockador does both of us good and she’s such a character. Meeting friends for dinner is my favourite way to round off a typical day off.
What are your biggest passions?
Sport is a big passion of mine. Whenever I get the chance I head to the slopes, having been lucky enough to have skied since I was little more than a toddler. I enjoy nothing more than being up in the mountains. Having said that, Covid and its lockdowns has meant that the tennis court has been a little bit more accessible recently! I also love entertaining, and having a group of friends over for dinner is an equally big passion of mine.
If you could choose anyone from today or history, who would be your ideal dinner party guest and why?
Roger Federer. As a huge tennis fan and having seen him live on a number of occasions I would love to get a few tips for my game. For me, he is the definition of a true sportsman and is someone who has been at the top of his game for so much of his career and comes across as an all-round gentleman.
Visit hospitalityforheroes.com to donate today. With every donation over £10 not only will you be providing at least three healthy meals for our heroic frontline workers, but you’ll also receive the recipe e-book. Donations over £35 will receive a hardback copy of the recipe book