On the afternoon of Monday 16 March, Nick Bramham lost his job. Woodhead Restaurants, which includes Quality Wines — the small Clerkenwell bar that, as head chef, Bramham and his partner Gus Gluck had turned into one of London’s standout places to eat and drink last year — closed all five of its businesses that lunchtime, citing the health and safety of employees and guests as its primary focus. Like many other restaurants in London, Woodhead took the initiative before the government mandated the closure of non-essential businesses across the U.K., and before the furlough scheme had been announced. Not knowing how long Quality Wines would be closed for, Bramham considered delivering trays of lasagne, publishing recipes, or finding a new job altogether. He wrote to his friends: “The hustle is on!”
Over the course of the next fortnight, a lot changed. The government attempted to safeguard employees from redundancy, loan schemes were announced, rent and rate holidays sanctioned. Delivery pivots launched and quickly folded. Food and wine shops opened, closed, then opened again. But as the scale and impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on public health and the economy became increasingly clear in real time, a group of friends whose specialisms spanned medicine, law, design, and marketing were plotting a way to provide nutritious meals for NHS workers, while also supporting London chefs they admired.
Deliver Aid’s aim is fairly simple: “Let’s take care of the people taking care of us,” the strapline reads. London chefs, with their newfound availability and numerous supplier relationships to try and maintain, prepare and cook batches of food at home or in their decommissioned restaurant kitchens, usually twice weekly. Deliver Aid packages them up for collection from a fleet of volunteers, who deliver to nominated liaison officers at specific departments at hospitals — and now two care homes — across the capital. While there has been an understandable media focus on intensive care units and doctors treating COVID-19 patients, Deliver Aid is sending meals to as many hospital departments as it can: to nurses, porters, security staff, and doctors not treating coronavirus patients but who have felt the wider pressure on the system. It’s why, for example, Great Ormond Street children’s hospital — which has received an influx of patients from hospitals managing the crisis directly — is among the 16 being served by the initiative.
The idea for the project came from co-founder Jack Manley, who is a junior A&E doctor at Whipps Cross in Leytonstone. He had noticed that since the crisis had worsened, he and doctors like him were receiving gifted meals from local donors and patients’ families. The problem, he soon realised, was that those meals were going only to doctors. Moreover, Manley had noticed how hard it was to get sustenance to hospitals, and with more staff doing more hours, the canteens were busy; breaks would be spent in a queue for food they had to pay for. Outside of the hospital, supermarket shelves had been ransacked by panic-buyers, leaving little for those who sought food at the end of a long shift. Deliver Aid wanted to ease that pressure and get food to those workers who needed it most. Bramham found his way to the project via another co-founder, William Akman, who had been recruiting chefs since March. A corporate lawyer in the City, he has become become a “super-regular” at Quality Wines, according to Bramham, with the two coming to know each other personally over the course of the last year.
Bramham would quickly become integral to the project, influencing the food both stylistically and nutritionally. Having been formally furloughed by Woodhead Restaurants, he’d been given a degree of short-term security, and because working for Deliver Aid was voluntary, he would not be compromising the terms of the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. He wanted to help because he could. It also returned some creative agency — just a £5 per meal budget was stipulated in an otherwise loose remit. Bramham, who’s kept the per-meal cost at between £2 and £3, made the call early, he said, to make food that “appealed to as broad a spectrum as possible” — vegetarian, if not vegan, limited allergens, healthy, and filling. “Fresh vibrant flavours, lots of spice, and herbs, lots of veg — and really tasty,” he said.
17 restaurant chefs have followed his lead to get involved in Deliver Aid — providing on average 1,000 meals a week for hospitals across the capital, from Whipps Cross on the edge of Epping Forest in the east to Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea in the west. In the month since launch, it has taken over £43,000 in donations. But on Friday 3 April, just under three weeks after the closure of his restaurant, it was Bramham on his own who readied Deliver Aid’s first delivery. That week he prepped, cooked, and packaged 150 portions of chickpea, potato and kale curry over two days in the basement of Quality Wines. Since then, and since the number of donations has increased in line with number of chefs providing meals, Bramham has continued to cook what he is used to: “A flavour profile focused around the Mediterranean,” he says, which has elicited the likes of pasta e fagioli or vegetable couscous with aubergine, courgette, and peppers. He’s deviated a little, too, one week preparing a mushroom and bean chilli with rice and jalapeños.
His fellow volunteers are a who’s who of a particular, “produce-led” and modern corner of the London restaurant industry: Quo Vadis’ Jeremy Lee, Ombra’s Mitshel Ibrahim, Zoe Adjonyoh of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and Two Lights’ Chase Lovecky. Another from that milieu who joined the ranks three weeks ago is Anna Tobias. She’d been preparing to open her long-awaited solo debut in partnership with the celebrated team behind 40 Maltby Street when the crisis struck. Plans for Cafe Deco, which was due to open in Bloomsbury this summer, are now on hold. Unlike the many chefs and restaurateurs who can quantify the losses suffered over the last six weeks — customers, staff, revenue — and access emergency government schemes to mitigate those losses, Tobias cannot prove her loss. Combined with a realisation that there will be no return to normal for restaurants post-lockdown, those circumstances bring with them an acute sense of uncertainty. Right now, they are preventing Tobias from making a firm decision on her future. She doesn’t know what will happen to her restaurant.
Akman, having for years enjoyed her cooking at Rochelle Canteen and elsewhere, invited Tobias to join the growing number of chefs cooking for Deliver Aid in mid-April. The chef said she’d seen what Bramham was doing, and she liked his food, noting his involvement as a good sign — and enough to overcome the first barrier to entry. “In life, sometimes there are things that you want to do but don’t know how to do them,” Tobias said. “And making decisions is especially hard at the moment with so much anxiety.” Akman’s getting in touch meant not having to make the first move, she added. “That was the hard bit.”
Like Bramham, Tobias elected to cook meals that are vegan and contain as few allergens as possible so that as many people as possible can eat them. She said she also wanted to include all the food groups, load the dishes with nutrients, and provide energy for those working in the NHS. For the first meal, she called on a recipe from the revered British food writer and Middle East specialist Claudia Roden. She made aubergine pilaf, from Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon, and served it alongside two salads — herby lentils and one comprised of spiced, grated carrot. Tobias has been amazed by her ability to keep almost all portions at a cost of £1, which enables the Deliver Aid donation pot to go further. But she’s not skimping on ingredients; she’s just being canny. For dried goods — pulses, grains, oil, and tins — she’s using local shops. And for the fresh vegetables, London-based European fruit and vegetable supplier Natoora — which in the morning, advertises its “second selection” to trade accounts like hers — ingredients that are, Tobias said, “past their sublime moment and perhaps less aesthetically pleasing,” but still high quality. It also means her cooking remains determined by seasonal produce, it’s just that she is forced to decide what it will be at the last-minute.
Unlike the majority of chefs involved in Deliver Aid who are in their restaurant kitchens, Tobias is cooking from her home, on four hobs and with a normal domestic oven, in Newington Green, north London. Despite practical limitations on her capacity, Tobias is preparing 50 portions of two different meals a week. She can’t fit more than that in her domestic fridge, but it’s working. A mix of suppliers, some of which, like Natoora, she would use in the professional kitchens she worked, give her the ability to make scaled-up versions of the dishes she may have cooked over the years at the River Cafe, Rochelle Canteen, P. Franco, or Quo Vadis. Last week, that took the form of a light spring broth with courgettes, peas, new potatoes, cannellini beans, wild garlic, parsley, and mint. “Somewhere between a vignarola and a minestrone,” she said.
Life under lockdown for chefs out of work is especially unusual. At work, 60-hour weeks are not uncommon; the adrenaline, buzz, and proximity to others are integral to the operation of a professional kitchen. It’s led Tobias to wonder whether volunteering for Deliver Aid might be as much about chefs looking after themselves as it is designed to help others. “It gives me some structure,” she said. “I didn’t really think about what it would be like not cooking.” But cooking for those in need had been something Tobias had hoped to do more of before the crisis. “I did something for the Felix Project and worked at a soup kitchen in Stoke Newington, but didn’t have the time [recently] while working at Quo Vadis and [preparing for the] opening [of Cafe Deco],” she said.
Another potential after-effect of cooking under these conditions is how it might influence chefs when they do return to professional kitchens. Tobias said the experience had caused her to ask: “Can I do something a bit more like this for a period of time in whatever the restaurant becomes?” When the economy inevitably constricts in the wake of the crisis, and in the absence of a return to the restaurant industry — reliant on high footfall, tourism, and entertainment — that existed before, food businesses of all kinds will have to adapt. Keeping prices low, being resourceful and economical with suppliers, and feeding proximate communities will be key to viability when much has been lost and much else remains uncertain. Might chefs be able to consider more closely what they would want, less what they have been led to believe others might? “I’m having weird daydreams about becoming a quiche factory because that’s what I’d want to takeaway,” Tobias said.
At the beginning of last week, Nick Bramham went back to work at Quality Wines. With the logistical support of his bosses at the next door Quality Chop House, he has launched Quality Wines at Home, cooking four-course meals and a series of snacks for collection or delivery. The first menu comprised freshly made focaccia; winter tomatoes with olives, capers, and marjoram; venison ragu pappardelle with Parmesan; and chocolate and almond torte. Add-ons include slices of jamon iberico de bellota and kits to make gildas. “Busy, chaotic, kind of fun,” Bramham said of the first day back. “We sold out which was cool. Learned a bunch. Hopefully it will get better and easier as the weeks go on.” In fact, three out of the four nights it operated last week, Quality Wines at Home sold out — delivering nearly 80 restaurant-standard meals (for two), price at £45, to locations within three miles of the Farringdon Road location.
Bramham has had to step back from Deliver Aid for the time being. Charged with managing the prep and cooking of the new takeaway service alone, he no longer has the time. But now, with so many other furloughed chefs involved, it can and will keep going until there’s no longer a need for the service. “I’m happy it’s in safe hands,” he said.
Coronavirus has forced chefs across the city to join Bramham and Tobias in reconsidering their roles in a city without restaurants. More change, social distancing measures, and a new economic reality, before and after a vaccine is found, will continue to demand from them as much adaptability and agility as creativity. For Akman, who wanted to involve “the restaurants that make London, London,” Deliver Aid’s pro-activity during the crisis was not just about addressing a pressing and urgent need; it was about preserving and safeguarding the future, too: “These are the restaurants and chefs who we want to make sure are back.”