How the Manchester and Cheshire hospitality industry helped key workers
PUBLISHED: 13:45 09 June 2020 | UPDATED: 21:42 12 June 2020
Meet the public-spirited chefs and hospitality aces working together to feed our key workers and vulnerable people.
Chef Mary-Ellen McTague knew what was coming. With a sister working in palliative care as an NHS doctor, the grim forecast ahead was clear. But rather than languish over the likely devastating impact on her own business – the hugely successful The Creameries in Chorlton – the talented chef moved quickly and started thinking about how to help others.
“We closed a few days before lockdown was announced,” says Mary-Ellen. “I was hearing how bad it was from my sister. I asked what help was needed and that was to feed people – I knew I could do that.”
Since then Mary-Ellen has been working non-stop to make sure NHS staff on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus have food to eat, as well as providing much-needed supplies for food banks, and meals for families with children in hospitals, people living with food poverty, women and children seeking refuge and people that are homeless. It’s been a remarkable task. But Mary-Ellen isn’t afraid of hard work.
She became the first female chef at the then Michelin-starred Lake District dining institution Sharrow Bay in Ullswater, and worked at Heston Blumenthal’s internationally renowned The Fat Duck in Bray, along with a string of other prestigious restaurants. Her own, Aumbry in Prestwich, brought her universal praise from customers and some of the most respected food critics in the industry. Following its closure, she ran several pop-up restaurants across Manchester before opening The Creameries in 2018, a restaurant that pulls in diners in their droves.
She has used the same verve and commitment it took her to succeed as a chef to establish Eat Well MCR, the hospitality collective whose purpose is to offer support to those who need it most, through supplying nutritious and delicious food. Mary-Ellen is cooking from The Creameries, which is now operating as a hub to the Eat Well MCR project, and she has galvanised a group of chefs and people working in the hospitality business across Manchester and Cheshire who are putting their own kitchens to good use. Together, they are making and delivering around 2,000 meals every week to hospitals, women’s refuges and hotels providing accommodation for the homeless.
Richard Sharples, executive chef at Gary Usher’s hugely successful Elite Bistros, which has several restaurants in Manchester and Cheshire, is one of them. The talented chef, along with some of his team, including Hispi head chef Matthew Fearnley and Wreckfish’s Ryan Haworth, are taking it in turns to cook in isolation at Mary-Ellen’s The Creameries and at Hispi in Didsbury.
“It felt like the right thing to do, we wanted to help where we could,” says Richard. “When you’re a chef and suddenly not working anymore it is strange. This helped to fill a void and really do something that is worthwhile.
“I’m incredibly proud of what all of us are achieving, together, being able to help those people who need it. The reactions you get from people who have had our food is wonderful.”
Rich Carver from Honest Crust Pizzas, which has bases at Altrincham Market, Mackie Mayor in Manchester and in Macclesfield’s Picturedrome, has also been putting his time to valuable use, making sure all of the food deliveries go smoothly, co-ordinating with dozens of hospitality businesses across the city and beyond. Members of his staff, who are furloughed, are volunteering their time in the business’s development kitchen in the city centre too to cook some of the thousands of meals being sent out.
“We had already started to work with charities at the beginning of this year as a way to try and give back,” says Rich. “When we heard what Mary-Ellen was doing we, of course, wanted to help. You want to be able to make a contribution and to help those who need it so much.
“It has been amazing to see how, not only my amazing staff, but the hospitality community has come together, in such a short space of time, to help and to make a real difference. The feedback has been incredible. As chefs, your whole reason for doing the job is to make people happy and give comfort from the food you make. This doesn’t change because we may not be open, we still want to do that. I’m proud of what is being achieved and think the this is only the beginning in terms of what Eat Well MCR can achieve.”
Brothers Owen and Ross Parker, who run Beehive Food and the kitchens at Manchester’s Atlas Bar, have been cooking to help the project as well as delivering between 600 and 700 meals a week. Chef Ross cooks and Owen spends his days delivering to NHS workers in Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, Manchester Royal Children’s Hospital, Wythenshawe Hospital and hotels around the city centre housing the homeless community and those threatened by domestic violence.
“It has been an amazing experience to be involved,” says Owen. “When Mary-Ellen first started, there were lots of wonderful volunteers who came forward to deliver the food. We had the properly refrigerated vans and knew we could help and make a positive impact.
“Seeing the smiles the food brings to people’s faces when we deliver is something special. I hope when we come out of the other side, people will remember the ones who stepped up to help.”
Others involved in the Eat Well MCR plight include Sam Buckley from Where the Light Gets In, Anna Sogaard from Erst, Cloudwater Brewery – and many more. Support for meal provision has been offered from food and drink suppliers and a crowdfuning page has been set up to help the group continue to provide food for those in need. For Mary-Ellen it has been a heartening experience to see people step up and help in such challenging times.
“Everyone who has been affected immediately started to turn their thoughts to how they can help,” she says. “From my experience, doing something useful right now is a great benefit for me personally. Having some structure and a reason to get out of bed is good. I know us chefs and the hospitality lot are generally quite a hyperactive bunch, so going from extremely busy to not busy at all is hard.”
“Together we are trying to help support services by providing additional meals. We share resources, so if one of us gets access to a load of takeaway containers we’ll share it out a bit or if anyone has an excess of food we’ll ask around the groups to see if anyone wants it. Equally, if anyone is short of food, we send an email around asking for ingredients.
“There are food banks and homeless charities who are desperate for volunteers all over the country. There’s definitely a huge demand for chefs and anyone who can organise a kitchen because the demands on these already excellent and capable homeless charities have suddenly been overwhelmed. They need support to look after the most vulnerable people.”