‘Not all superheroes wear capes’ – so the saying goes – and you certainly need look no further than the county’s food and drink sector to see a wealth of community champions helping in the fight against COVID-19 who would give any Marvel comic strip character a run for their money.
So it is that, while the coronavirus outbreak has put paid to their usual competitive format, the Weetabix Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards are not only continuing to act as a business support hub for the sector, but are also celebrating those who are responding to the ongoing challenges by becoming vital, if impromptu, local food heroes.
Among them is James Peck of Burnt Lemon Chefs in Northampton, runner-up in the ‘Chef of the Year’ category in last year’s Awards, who, with fellow ‘New Local Drink’ finalist Benjamin Jelley of Jelley Distilleries at Brixworth, has created a social isolation supper club, enabling fine diners to come together online to enjoy a three course meal of local ingredients, paired with organic cocktails.
With their first event in April, which was supported by both BBC Masterchef finalist Christian Day and Awards Patron and Telegraph restaurant critic William Sitwell, and their second earlier this month having been such hits, they are looking to repeat those successes for their third taking place on Saturday 20th June, to mark Father’s Day weekend.
As James explains, they are delighted to be helping lovers of good food and drink survive the lockdown: “Part of the reason for launching the club was of course as an opportunity to create some income, but it was also to offer as close an experience to dining out as possible, rather than having yet another laptop meal in front of the TV, so we create the menus, deliver the produce and then in real time show those at home how to prepare and cook it” said James.
“It means that they are not only having the fun of a cookery lesson from a top chef in their own kitchen, but also trying out new techniques and perhaps some new flavours and the best thing is that, after washing it all down with Ben’s delicious vodka cocktails, they don’t even have to take a taxi home!” he grinned.
Meanwhile ‘Booker Young Chef’ finalist Charlie Garrett is working no less hard, despite his venue, The Plough at Shutlanger – itself co-winner of the ‘Booker Food Pub of the Year’ category – closing its doors to dine-in customers in line with government restrictions.
Instead the venue is not only offering a takeaway and delivery service, adapting some of its award-winning dishes to create a full menu of starters, mains and puddings, but has also converted its restaurant into a shop, stocking everything from biscuits to butternut squash, lemons to lemon curd as well as, not surprisingly for a venue renowned for its wine list, a full complement of sauvignons and merlots!
Not to be undone by his fellow whites-wearing finalist, ‘Booker Young Chef’ runner-up Kenny Markham from Northampton is also using his skills for the benefit of others, having signed up as a volunteer chef with the newly-created Northamptonshire Emergency Food Aid Alliance.
The Alliance was set in April to provide up to 1,000 meals a day to feed the county’s most vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged through the crisis and Kenny is now giving up two days a week to join the kitchen team at Portfolio Events in Kettering to ensure that their nutritious, freshly-prepared meals continue to be supplied to those who need them most.
That effort is also being replicated by Michael O’Gorman, another of last year’s ‘Chef of the Year’ finalists, who, alongside selling and delivering meals through his own business, Side Order Catering, is also working in a care home in Kettering during the lockdown.
In addition, he has just launched a series of short videos on social media entitled ‘Chefs Hacks’, offering top tips on a variety of culinary techniques, something he hopes will help home cooks avoid some of the usual kitchen pitfalls: “I know the celebrity chefs on TV might have you think that you can’t achieve what they can, but cooking’s not really that complicated when you know some of the tricks of the trade!” revealed Michael.
“So, after becoming aware that more and more people were really enjoying spending a little of their extra time on baking and creating more imaginative dishes from scratch, I thought I would share some of my skills, like easy ways to prepare more exotic fruit and vegetables or time-saving methods to make meals go further, which I hope viewers are finding as valuable as I am fun and rewarding!” he enthused.
Finally, but by no means least, reigning ‘Chef of the Year’ Danny Tompkins, with help from fellow finalist Reece Brooks and a team of others, is using his workplace kitchen at Althorp - where he is now private chef to Earl Spencer - to create around 300 meals for staff at Northampton General Hospital as part of the Food4Heroes campaign.
Alongside publicly honouring the many like those outlined who have transformed their usual roles to ones supporting others, the Weetabix Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards are also offering business support to the sector to enable them not only to survive the crisis but also to return to full pre-COVID operational levels at the earliest opportunity.
To that end, they are staging a series of free Q&A webinars on a variety of topics identified through the Awards’ research with over 150 food and drink sector businesses, including building your brand, legal advice, social media and PR.
Weetabix Food Company Marketing Director, Francesca Theokli says: “The Northamptonshire Food and Drink Awards team would normally be flooded with entries at this time of year from those keen to reap the reputational benefit from this prestigious competition. Instead the platform is re-focussing its efforts on offering much-needed business support to companies across the sector during this remarkable time.
“Weetabix are incredibly proud and humbled to play a small role in helping enable this" she added.
For more details of the free webinars, the Northamptonshire Emergency Food Aid Alliance or to nominate someone or a business you know to be deserving of public recognition, please email Rachel Mallows at The Mallows Company – email@example.com or call 01933 664437.
You can also share your stories via social media on Facebook at @foodawardsHQ, on twitter and Instagram at @foodawards and on LinkedIn at @weetabixnfadawards
For further information about the next social isolation supper club, please visit www.burntlemonchefs.com or to place your order from The Plough at Shutlanger, go to www.theploughshutlanger.co.uk
Meanwhile to view Michael’s kitchen skills videos, please visit www.youtube.com/mogfood while you can make your donation for the Food4Heroes campaign in the Midlands region via www.food4heroes.co.uk