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Filipino chefs in London raise funds, cook for NHS front liners

Serving up food boxes (Mae Williams of Food with Mae)

LONDON— As the UK national lockdown continues, the Filipino community has united to support National Health Service and hospital staff on the front lines.

Currently, there are over 20,000 Filipinos working as NHS staff.

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The #FilipinoFoodforNHS initiative was created to provide free Filipino meals to NHS staff, some of whom arrived in the UK only days before flights from the Philippines were stopped.

Organized by Kanlungan Filipino Consortium, supper club chefs including Baboy Club, The Adobros, Food with Mae and Luto London have raised funds and cooked over 300 meals in the past week, served to seven different London hospitals.

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Waves of goodwill

With an original target of £300, the Go Fund Me page has exceeded expectations with, at time of this writing, over £3,800 donated. Funds raised help cover the costs of ingredients and supplies per week per chef.

Matching chefs to hospitals based on geographical area, the home-cooked meals served each week include chicken adobo, pancit and pork belly.

Staff from 13E Respiratory Ward at Royal London Hospital receiving meal. (Keren, Kanlungan Philippine Alliance)

The initiative has inspired a wave of volunteers and will expand across the country in Manchester and Surrey over the next few weeks.

Maria Garbutt-Lucero, founder of Baboy Club, expressed her surprise when PJ Frankland butchers in Vauxhall voluntarily donated over 20 kilos of meat after she called to explain the initiative: “They said, ‘You can have it for free as we all have to do our bit.’ That really meant a lot.”

Camberwell-based catering studio Blanch & Shock also offered their commercial kitchen for use.

A taste of home

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Since the UK lockdown began, more and more Filipino health care staff have been discharged from overseas and placed immediately on the front lines in Covid-19 wards around the nation.

Mark Corbyn, co-founder of The Adobros, explained that the workers have not had time to adjust to British culture or food yet — and so the food they serve is more than functional: “Even if our food is quite small scale, we can help comfort these Filipino health care staff with a small taste of home.”

Baboy Club chicken adobo being packed by Maria Garbutt-Lucero (Alex Bryson)

Mark, whose wife is a nurse, continued: “We’ve had messages from hospitals asking if we can help provide food because they have a lot of Filipino nurses, some of whom have just arrived in the UK and are working long shifts without time to cook. A lot of them are homesick and still trying to adapt.”

Mae Magnaye Williams of Food with Mae, a popular blog and supper club based in London, added: “When we deliver the food, we have to keep a two-meter distance. But seeing all the nurses, doctors and care-workers in the hospital eating and enjoying our food brightens my day. It’s a good feeling.”

Mary San Pablo of Luto London said: “If you’ve been on your feet for seven hours and this is your one warm meal a day, you want something filling and delicious. That’s why we’ve cooked staple Filipino dishes.”

She added: “My cousins are NHS workers in Covid-19 units and seeing photos of hospital staff in full scrubs and masks holding a box of my pancit made me cry. Seeing it just feels more real, and you realize what they’re going through.”

A sense of purpose

All four chefs have expressed that the initiative has given them a sense of purpose.

“When the restaurant I work at closed, my chef friends and I felt scared,” said Mary, who works as a full-time chef at Thai restaurant Som Saa. “In a restaurant, you’re always busy. It feels really weird not to be cooking constantly. We tried to volunteer for lots of different food banks and charities, but spots were already filled, which was good. That’s why I’m really happy that I can help out now.”

Delivering food at 13E Respiratory Ward at Royal London Hospital delivering food (Keren, Kanlungan Philippine Alliance)

Mark (The Adobros) expressed similar thoughts: “Up until now my main thing was making sure the home environment is nice for my wife because she’s working 10 hour days in a high stress environment. So, when she comes home I’m just trying to look after her. It’s nice that I can do something positive, even if it’s a small meal. Every little thing counts.”

Post-pandemic future of supper clubs

Now, with 2020 plans derailed and social distancing measures in place, the chefs consider how their supper club businesses might be affected moving forward.

Pork Belly Adobo and Rice (Mark Corbyn/The Adobros)

The supper club format typically involves visiting someone’s house and enjoying a meal in the company of strangers.

“I think it’ll take some time for the trust to come back,” said Mark (The Adobros). “As my wife is a nurse in a hospital, maintaining her health is important. People might wonder, ‘is someone else here infected? If I go into someone’s home will it be okay?’”

“Having 14 random people in our house per week is something we need to manage carefully and consider whether it’s a risk we want to take until we’re certain the virus is under control. It’s one thing serving dinners at a venue, but having people actually come into our home, that’s going to be different.”

Mae (Food with Mae) views the lockdown as a time to reflect and find inspiration: “It’s a tough time, and as with any business you have to find a way to evolve. Change is constant, this lockdown is just one instance of change. Take this time to put your head down, look at your business, and see how you can evolve and find the little things that’ll make you smile. Find inspiration from other people. Also, if you just want to watch Marvel films for the whole week, that’s okay too.”

Mary (Luto London) believes that no matter what, people in the food business should focus on the food: “Chefs should continue to believe in what they’re doing. Post-Covid, it may seem hard and difficult to navigate your food business, but you’ll adapt and be more creative moving forward. The support will continue. If you’re making delicious food, everyone will always come back to you.” – @melissalegarda
Donate to the initiative here: Filipino Food for NHS Staff – Go Fund Me

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TAGS: Filipino pop-up chefs London, Filipino supper clubs London, Filipinos on UK pandemic front lines, support for UK National Health Service workers
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