It would be a typical enough scene — the kind that has played out in London millions of times before — were it not for three things: none of them is being paid, all of the food is free and the building they are taking it through will not host a single customer.
The delivery of repurposed produce from The Felix Project to the kitchen team at With Compassion is a crossing point in a mass voluntary exercise fuelled by the Standard’s Food For London Now campaign.
Today’s drop-off includes beautiful squashes of every shape imaginable and sacks of ruby-red quinoa — leaving the chef team led by Ernest Oparaocha to cast trained eyes over what is there and decide how best to cook it up and serve it to hundreds of people in a few hours’ time.
“Every day is something new,” the 54-year-old south Londoner tells the Standard. “There’s no menu planning here, we plan the menu on the day. You look at what’s coming in and you work around that.”
The team work from London Scottish House, a military building turned cultural centre that is currently one of the capital’s many dark kitchens — a place food is made without any dining hall to serve it in.
The “dark kitchen” term is commonly associated with restaurant brands that exist only within the confines of delivery apps and websites.
In this instance, the team from With Compassion work to produce meals that can be loaded onto food trucks and served for free to 1,000 people in need every day — an initiative made possible by those who have donated to our Food For London Now campaign.
From the vantage point of the site’s stovetops, the difference between a dark kitchen and a traditional set-up is hard to spot. Hard-working chefs are still racing the clock to get prepped up and ready to go for service.
Staff are still bantering as they work with pride to produce the best food they can. Instructions are still shouted over roaring ovens, ringing timers and clashing steel.
But head downstairs and things start to look a little more unorthodox. The striking Victorian main hall has played host to formal dances, wartime recruitment drives and inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic. Today, it is filled with people peeling potatoes.
The nomadic culinary team prepping away have adapted several times already, moving from the home of the Saracens rugby team, to the state-of-the-art kitchens of Wembley stadium and the vast halls of Alexandra Palace. Now with floors covered in protective plastic, meal prep and packing is carried out by those willing to give up a few hours a week to support the cause — all of them for different reasons.
Mr Oparaocha leads the team of experienced chefs and fresh volunteers after taking voluntary redundancy at the start of the pandemic.
“At first I thought ‘not getting paid? No chance. I’m not doing it, nothing in life is free’.”
Seven months later, he has had a hand in producing more than 100,000 free meals for people who need help. “No one should go to bed hungry and I’m a strong believer in that.”
Let’s Feed London Now!
Together with our sister title The Independent, we will be delivering food directly to 1,000 Londoners a day through our partner With Compassion. Please donate here to help ensure no Londoner goes hungry this Christmas.