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Volunteer stories: The importance of cooking and presenting food with care

Project Leader, Chris, has given over 155 hours to FoodCycle Finsbury Park, a project renowned for it’s high-quality food and attention to detail. We asked him about what his role involves, what he has learned and why he thinks presentation is so important!

How did you hear about us?

I was looking to do some volunteering in a soup kitchen and FoodCycle came up when I searched online. I was drawn to it because it looked like a more open and friendlier environment than a traditional soup kitchen. It was really fun from day one and a lot different to soup kitchen’s I had volunteered with in the past. It’s nice to be somewhere that is led by volunteers, not by members of staff, as you have more control and ownership over the project. 

Why did you get involved?

There were lots of reasons I decided to join FoodCycle as a volunteer. Firstly, I wanted to do something to support those experiencing food poverty, and just from looking on the streets I could see that homelessness was going up. Joining FoodCycle showed me that food poverty is a growing problem for lots of people.

I also love cooking, so I felt I was putting my skills to good use. It seems unfair that many of our guests don’t get to try new food experiences and tastes very often, so by volunteering I get to give them the opportunity to try things they may otherwise not have.

I knew a little about food waste, but I didn’t realise it was such a big problem environmentally and socially. The first session really peaked my interest in this.

What do you do for FoodCycle each week? Why do you enjoy it?

I am a Project Leader and I generally lead on the cooking side of things, making mains and starters and with general coordination. I have ideas that I can bring, but I always want to get volunteers involved with coming up with recipes. Volunteers are more likely to come back if they have more control and responsibility. I’ve also enjoyed working with hosting volunteers recently and having more chances to chat with guests.

What skills have you gained?

I’ve gained many useful skills that can be applied to life in general, especially running the kitchen and the hosting side of things. This definitely requires great time management and coordination skills, such as when to put certain dishes in the oven, or on the hob – it requires balancing a lot of tasks.

As a leader I would definitely recommend the volunteer management aspects: I am learning how best to motivate them, ensuring it is still fun, and making sure they feel valued. Also, we focus on wanting to make things a bit special for our guests (hosting and food). The guests have known us for a year now and they really appreciate our work.

What do you think guests have learned from FoodCycle Finsbury Park, and what have you learnt from them?

I think guests have learnt about eating healthy and tasty food, and hopefully a bit about healthy eating and cooking, such as trying different types of vegetables. We try to ensure it is not too complicated. They’ve also recognise how much time and effort we put in- we’ve seen them help with clearing up and closing down which is a big help, and they seem to really appreciate our help.

I’ve learnt how to cook things that appeal to a wide range of tastes (something I didn’t appreciate at the beginning). It’s made me more open-minded. On a people level, I’ve learnt how kind, open-minded and generous people are. We all come from a variety of different backgrounds and have interesting conversations. I feel I have learnt a lot about them, and also how our community is so diverse. When I see our guests thanking and helping us, it does make me feel more humble and appreciative of what I have.

Why do you think the presentation of food, and the quality of the food made, is so important at a FoodCycle meal?

Firstly, because FoodCycle as a national charity is trying to break the stigma around what a free meal is. We make it more open, fun, useful and welcoming. Cooking and presenting food with care, with restaurant-style plating, helps with this.

When I started I slowly but surely introduced better presentation. At first, there was a little resistance because of the speed we need to turn meals around in, but now people really like doing it. It’s fun for volunteers and I feel they are learning a bit which is motivating for them.

Also, we cook things that are a bit different, so both volunteers and guests are trying things they may not have before.

We’re ultimately just trying to get a Michelin star!

What’s the one meal you’ve been most proud of being involved in making at FoodCycle?

 I guess I’d say the fundraiser we put on with professional chef Asma Khan. It was a lot of effort, but it involved the whole team, both in the build-up and on the day. It was a big success, both volunteers and attendees got a lot out of it. And we raised a lot of money from it which will help us to continue serving fantastic meals every Saturday.

What do you do when you’re not volunteering?

 When I’m not volunteering with FoodCycle, I’m finishing my Masters, seeing friends and family, and going out for dinner when I can.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering?

If you like food, cooking food, and you like being round great people, just give it a go. Like a lot of these things in life, I think what’s the harm in trying? It’s a very open, inclusive and easy-going atmosphere. You’ll make a difference, even if you just try once.

If you could sum up FoodCycle in one word, what would it be?

Caring

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