Thursday, 21 March 2013

Feature: Social Enterprise Restaurants

Good Food

We’d all consider dining to be a social activity, but few realise just how much good eating out can do for society. Ben Norum takes a look at London's lesser-known restaurant-based social enterprises.

Where socially minded restaurants are concerned, it's hard not to think first of Jamie Oliver. He captured the nation's headlines and hearts when he launched Old Street restaurant Fifteen in 2002, giving unemployed and down on their luck youngsters the chance to take on apprenticeships. Eleven years on, the TV cameras have gone home, but the good work continues and we still hear success story after success story from graduates at both the London restaurant and the newer Cornwall spin-off.
Opening two years later, the like-minded but less high-profile Hoxton Apprentice restaurant didn't have the luxury of a celebrity ambassador. It won numerous social and culinary accolades, and across nine years placed more than 450 apprentice chefs into restaurants including Nobu. The outcome is less positive, though. Due in large to a cut in government funding, the charity of which the restaurant was part, Training For Life, was forced into administration and the restaurant put up for sale. It's currently closed while a buyer is sought.
Things are looking better for nearby Waterhouse restaurant in Shoreditch. It is owned and run by The Shoreditch Trust, who use it to host their Blue Marble Training programme which supports and nurtures young people who would otherwise not get the opportunity to develop a career in the food industry. The tucked away but well worth seeking out restaurant is highly affordable and pairs their dedication to helping people with a focus on food sustainability.
Brigade on Tooley Street is the newest entrant to the social enterprise game. Housed in a disused fire station next door to the offices of accountancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, it is privately supported by the company through both funding and mentoring work. It was founded by chef Simon Boyle and runs a six month apprenticeship programme called Freshlife, aimed at people who are jobless, homeless or considered in danger of becoming homeless. Candidates receive mentoring and classes, but primarily learn on the job at Brigade, under the guidance of the restaurant's permanent chefs. "Brigade works to high standards and expects the same from its staff, irrespective of their level or ability," says Simon, and indeed during a lunch boasting a brilliantly executed runny-yolked scotch egg and a beautifully seared beef fillet adorned with bone marrow crust, it's hard to imagine that the chef cooking it won't have worked in the kitchen for more than a matter of weeks. There's clearly a lot of quality control to be done, but by all accounts their graduates already seem to be building up an impressive array of jobs upon leaving. After the six months at Brigade are up, the apprentice chefs receive two more six month placements at other restaurants and companies who have partnered with the scheme. These are paid positions and are designed so that there is a high likelihood of longer-term employment once they come to an end.
The Clink charity also sees food as a way of helping people into employment; this time, it’s prisoners who they work with. Based in Surrey not far south of Morden station, The Clink trains inmates who then work in a prison restaurant which is open to the public. As well as offering a quirky dining experience, and something for the prisoners to focus their time on, it also provides them with valuable skills and experience for future employment upon release; the scheme has been highly praised by ministers who commend the visible drop in re-offending rate of those prisoners who have taken part. Now a second, more central London branch is planned for Kennington within the next year or so, this time held in a church rather than in prison, and to be run almost entirely by ex-offenders.
It seems that social responsibility in London’s restaurant industry is moving off the list of sides and becoming a popular main course. As for how much it can help feed up our starved economy? Well, we’ll just have to keep eating out and see what happens.

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