‘Healthy eating on a budget’ is a mantra that award-winning chef Mike Spackman religiously shares far and wide…and his passion for cooking nutritious meals is making a huge impact with homeless people in Kent.
Mike is a regular fixture in the kitchen of The Quays hostel, in Sittingbourne, run by Riverside Care and Support, where he teaches former rough sleepers the art of cooking healthy meals at little cost.
However, the community chef is no ordinary cook and has some impressive credentials to his name. He recently won the national title Cook of the Year in the BBC Radio Four Food and Farming Awards – and The Quays had a hand in helping him win the coveted prize.
“Competition judge Allegra McEvedy came to The Quays and saw me in action, cooking food with residents. We prepared lunch which was shared with everyone at the hostel. It was packed with around 60 people eating and socialising. I went through two rounds of judging.
“Then at the awards evening I was up against two other finalists, and couldn’t believe it when they announced I’d won. Jamie Oliver was on a big screen congratulating me as he was filming in another country.
“Judges praised my work and the positive impact it’s having in the community, as well as making a difference to people’s lives,” explained the 62-year-old grandfather from Romney Marsh who was nominated anonymously.
It was a chance meeting nine years ago with The Quays service manager, Donna Lee, at a community event making paella that Mike started teaching at the hostel. Donna realised the positive impact it would have on residents and provide them with the necessary life skills to eat healthily.
Mike visits the 84-bed hostel and several of the residents work with him preparing, cooking and serving food to everyone.
He gives a comprehensive guide to cooking – from making a base sauce which can be used in a variety of dishes, such as white sauce, and nourishing one-pot meals. They are also taught how to keep the kitchen clean, food handling and preparation, while working towards their Food Hygiene certificate.
He added: “Cooking on a budget classes gives residents at the hostel the confidence to be adventurous in the kitchen, and shows them that they can make a meal which is tasty and nutritious. It’s great to be able to get them to spend time together cooking. It gives them a sense of achievement and allows people to believe in themselves and help live independently.
“It has increased their confidence and helped reduce social isolation. Each person grapples with many complex issues in their lives, so an engaging food programme helps give them a greater sense of self-worth and purpose. The essence of learning to cook is proceeded by sharing food and socialising. Food brings people together and unites them; it’s biblical.”
The former teacher, who works for a charitable initiative called the Community Chef Project, changed career paths and went to catering college to become a qualified chef. He takes his food truck all around Kent, visiting community events, schools, street corners, and parks to educate people to eat healthily on a budget.
Mike continued: “It was when I was teaching that I noticed children were interacting less with food. That was the catalyst for me to change career paths and become a community chef. I visit hard to reach communities with my pop-up kitchen, working with schoolchildren, young people excluded from schools, homeless schemes, the elderly and families.
“I really enjoy inspiring people to cook healthy meals. I go to festivals and events, and residents from The Quays volunteer with the charity. Together we cook food for people to enjoy. Sample dishes are either given out for free or there’s a small charge to cover food costs.
“My specialty dish is paella because it’s colourful, amazing and tastes good. Paella is symbolic, it’s a crowd-pleaser!”
Donna Lee, The Quays service manager, says Mike’s work unites people and reduces social isolation. She added: “He has made a positive impact with staff and residents by bringing everyone together. His cookery classes prevent people from getting lonely, and collectively they cook delicious meals which is shared among everyone. His work does have a massive impact with residents and transform their lives for the better.”
To find out more about Riverside’s supported housing services visit: www.riverside.org.uk/care-and-support/supported-living