Chef finds lockdown job as a fruit-picker while restaurants are closed

Norfolk chef Charlie Hodson has taken a fruit-picking job at Place UK while restaurants have been cl

Norfolk chef Charlie Hodson has taken a fruit-picking job at Place UK while restaurants have been closed during the lockdown. Picture: Charlie Hodson - Credit: Charlie Hodson

A Norfolk chef has found another way to help feed the nation while restaurant kitchens are locked down – by answering the call to become a fruit picker.

Charlie Hodson said he feels “very honoured” to be one of the 38 new British recruits at Place UK at Tunstead, near North Walsham, following the nationwide “Pick for Britain” appeal to fill vital harvest jobs after many of the usual workforce had been restricted from travelling from eastern Europe.

He said it was exhausting work, picking strawberries in poly-tunnels from 5am, but it has given him a better understanding of a key ingredient he uses in his cooking, and a new appreciation for the efforts of those who grow and gather it.

“It has opened my mind to how amazing soft fruit producers are in the UK and how hard it is to do the job,” said Mr Hodson. “I am in my fourth week now, and I’m exhausted. But you put your headphones in a listen to music and you get into a rhythm.

“I stand there sometimes thinking about how it must have been years and years ago when the Land Army answered the call during the war when we needed to grow food. When I imagine older folk taking about Covid and this call to arms – not to fight, but to grow and harvest fruit – I feel very honoured.

“I thought I was quick – I pick 19-20kg per hour, but some of the best are picking between 45-55kg per hour. We have got two or thee of the most amazing Romanian guys who have been teaching us as an English group. They know the product inside and out.”

READ MORE: Fruit farm hires 38 pickers out of 2,000 lockdown job enquiriesMr Hodson said he was keen to take the opportunity to understand more about this Norfolk food product.

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“I realised I spend an awful lot of time getting to know where my pork, or Cromer crab, or Norfolk asparagus comes from, even things like rapeseed oil and Norfolk saffron, the smaller more refined parts of our culinary world,” he said. “Through the summer months, chefs take kilos and kilos from fruit and veg merchants, but we completely forget about the heritage of our soft fruit.

“I remember picking soft fruits as a boy and I saw that call to arms to help British farming because a lot of companies were worried what was going to happen. They had fields of fruit there and at the beginning of April they were wondering who was going to harvest their crops.”

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Following the lockdown closure of his kitchen at the Crown Inn at Northwold, Mr Hodson has also teamed up with farmers to produce educational cooking videos as part of the #LockdownLearning initiative launched by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the team of farmers at EatFarmNow.

READ MORE: Chef’s farm cookery videos will help children learn during the lockdownHe said the fruit-picking job had helped with his fitness and wellbeing as he joined the diverse team of students, retirees and furloughed workers on the farm.

“There are some amazing stories, from youngsters aged 16 to retired people in their 60s and people who have been furloughed,” he said. “Some of them have not seen anyone since the start of the lockdown. They are coming from professional walks of life, from recruitment or the hospitality industry, everyone from chefs to waiting staff to pub managers.

“I would recommend it to anyone sitting at home battling with mental health or wellbeing. If they see an opportunity to go and do something outside or part of the campaign to feed the nation, I would encourage them to do it. It has certainly benefited my mental health.”

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