Many people don’t have an extended family to ensure they eat well or to take them for a treat at a restaurant. But a new scheme aims to bring good food to those that deserve it most. STACIA BRIGGS finds out more about the Chefs in the Community Project.

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On a bitingly-cold February day, the kitchen is a welcome respite from the chilly wind blowing across the marshes from the coast.

Diners eagerly wait next door, relishing the opportunity to have a meal cooked by one of Norfolk’s top chefs, Richard Hughes from The Lavender House, who is being assisted by students from Norwich City College’s hotel school.

On the menu is roast salmon, served with a warm new potato salad and tomato and chive butter followed by a delectable concoction of warm winter fruit salad with a ginger parfait and cinnamon crisps.

The new Chefs in the Community Programme aims to reach as many people in Norfolk as possible, whether they are elderly, vulnerable or hard-working carers who receive little reward for the constant care and support they offer to those they look after.

Richard, who is also director at Norwich’s Assembly House and partner at The Pigs in Edgefield, is keen to share the pleasure of fine dining with everyone, offering great food to people who might not otherwise have a chance to enjoy it and giving restaurateurs and suppliers the chance to give something back to the community.

He hopes to encourage other chefs, suppliers, local food producers and community groups to enter into the spirit of the venture by pledging their time and produce or suggesting worthy recipients of the scheme.

“It’s nice to give something back to Norfolk and to do something that helps to integrate communities,” said Richard, working in the kitchen at Herondale, Age UK Norfolk’s Community Support Centre for people in later life and their carers which is based in Acle. “The benefit is two-fold. The students from City College will gain experience of providing lunch for what could be a demanding audience in an unfamiliar environment with the usual pressures that come in a restaurant service and the guests will enjoy a fine dining menu.

“The Lavender House is sponsoring the first event, but we hope to encourage people across the county to join the project and help with similar meals across Norfolk.

“It’s really nice to give people a special meal, especially people who deserve it so much.”

Steve Thorpe is head of hotel, hair and beauty at Norwich City College. Students from the hospitality courses will be an integral part of the new scheme, offering their time in return for the experience of working with a top chef and helping those in need.

“It’s a great idea and we’re very happy to be able to help,” he said.

“There were lots of volunteers and there’s now a queue that want to help in the future. For our students, this is a wonderful opportunity to work with a great chef like Richard and to work in the community.”

The first two students to take part in the scheme were Greg Arundell and Fran Leverett, both 17, who are studying catering at Norwich City College and who were enjoying their first experience in a professional kitchen.

“I really enjoy being creative in the kitchen,” said Greg, whose grandmother was a home economics teacher at Notre Dame and who has been cooking for as long as he can remember.

“I want to work in the industry when I leave college and my dream is to run my own restaurant so working here today with Richard is really great – he made it really fun.

“I’ve also enjoyed coming out into the community and cooking for people who might not otherwise get to have a meal like this. It makes all the hard work worth it.”

Fran added: “I’ve never done anything like this before and it’s been really good. It was all very organised, so it never got too stressful although service was quite hard!”

For Sharon Forster, manager of Herondale, the opportunity to have a kitchen-takeover by professional chefs was one she didn’t hesitate to accept.

“We are a respite unit for the elderly and frail and offer short-term respite care for those in need for anything from a day to eight weeks,” she said.

“We have 30 beds and are here to offer carers respite and to help out in crisis situations.

“We are always keen to welcome the community into Herondale and work with the local Scout group, the pre-school group and schools. For us, it’s important that our clients feel part of a wider community.

“When people heard about this meal, they were very excited. People swapped the day they normally visit the centre so that they could come and we’d like to thank Richard for choosing us as the first place to benefit from this great idea.

“It’s also lovely to have the students come into Herondale and have a chance to learn about catering for a large group of people and be able to see a room full of happy diners afterwards.”

More than 40 diners enjoyed a two-course dinner, with wine, served by staff from Herondale and from The Lavender House.

Among their number was Mary Snelling, a 106-year-old Herondale client who is a regular visitor to the Acle care unit.

“Lunch was absolutely lovely,” she said.

“I particularly enjoyed the salmon and the sauce that was with it. It’s been a nice treat.”

If you would like to offer your help to the Chefs in the Community Programme as a sponsor, restaurant supplier, chef or local food producer or have a community group you think would benefit from the programme, contact Richard at lavenderhouse39@aol.com or 01603 Norwich 712215.

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