The Real Junk Food Project, Chapel Road, Leeds
Saturday, 5 July 2014
The first day of the Tour is always busy and a bit stressful. Saturday was also long.
I was up at 6.30 ready to drive into Leeds to interview UCI president Brian Cookson for The Telegraph Cycling Podcast. (The interview will be played in an episode during the coming week). The working day ended at about 9pm after I’d filed a couple of pieces for the Sunday newspaper I write for and once the latest episode of the podcast was in the can. You can listen to that here.
We’d been invited to dinner by David Walsh, the chief sports writer of The Sunday Times, but as we left Harrogate all I could think of was going back to our apartment and getting some sleep. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was in danger of being awarded the stylo citron (the lemon pen), for sourest journalist.
I am glad I changed my mind, after a bit of pressure from Richard. All I knew beforehand was that David’s son, Conor, was involved with The Real Junk Food Project, a café serving food that had been thrown away by supermarkets and restaurants and was bound for landfill. You can probably imagine what I was thinking.
We were last to arrive and as I sat down I had a look around the table. It was quite a guest list. There was three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond and his wife Kathy, Olympic and world champion Nicole Cooke, Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters (two members of the 1999 Tour de France-winning team, as David pointed out with tongue in cheek), journalists Orla Chennaoui and Lia Hervey from Sky, Rupert Guinness and Gregor Brown, Garmin-Sharp’s director of communications Marya Pongrace and finally Richard and Simon.
The food was great café style fare, the conversation was fun – I was sitting next to Greg, who is one of the nicest, friendliest people and has the ability to make everyone he meets feel like they’ve known him for years. I couldn’t resist telling him he’d been one of my heroes in the 1980s and he talked with such enthusiasm for cycling.
There was a choice to be made from the menu board so I opted for the French onion soup for a starter. This was rich, deep, thick with onions and very tasty, with a large crouton forming an island in the middle.
For the main course, I opted for the meat (of course) and had a slice of pork and a slice of lamb with a potato cake and a neat quenelle of pea puree. This came with a very hot and very tasty gravy.
Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the dessert, which was a lemon creme brûlée and had a very crisp top and was silky smooth underneath, as it should be.
So, there I was, happily eating away, with a vague idea of the concept behind the café. It wasn’t until Conor introduced the chef and one of the driving forces behind the project, Adam Smith, that it truly sank in.
Without getting too sentimental about it, Adam’s explanation put into perspective the mildly challenging day I’d endured. He spoke rapidly, passionately and with the heart of a true chef and his message was incredibly powerful and very moving. He talked us through the menu of food we’d eaten, explaining that everything had been salvaged – or intercepted – before it could be thrown away by markets, restaurants and supermarkets, and before it had gone off.
Adam explained that he’d encountered the concept in Australia and decided to recreate something similar in Leeds in 2013. He said that he’d rescued the onions from a vegetable market in Manchester, that someone dropped in a large bag of quinoa for the other starter option because they didn’t have any use for (let’s face it, who does?) and that the meat had been thrown out by a supermarket.
They then turn all the ingredients they get for free, into tasty, healthy, nutritious meals. The café now caters for dozens of people a day, sometimes hundreds, and their Pay As You Feel policy means that some of the most disadvantaged people in Leeds have somewhere they can go to get a hot meal even if they have little or no money.
Instead of paying in cash, people can wash up, tidy up, do a stint as a waiter, clean the windows or help in a host of other ways. This is public service in its purest sense.
Adam told us a host of moving stories – about a guy from the Newcastle area who was released from prison in Leeds after being cleared of manslaughter. He had no money for food or transport and stumbled across the café where he got something to eat. He admitted he’d have committed a crime in order to eat that day had it not been for the café.
Another person who was contemplating suicide came into the café, ate a meal, got involved in the project and turned his life around. Adam believes, in fact knows, that the café has saved lives in this run-down part of the city where food poverty affects so many.
It was at this point that I think I got something in my eye.
Adam continued to talk, his audience captivated by his energy and vision. He works 100 hours a week, the staff are all volunteers and he has plans to help others set up similar cafés in other parts of Britain.
But it was revelation about the scale of wastage that really got to me. He talked of tonnes of food being thrown away when it could be used to feed people who struggle to pay for enough to eat. He explained the problem of supermarket expiration dates, which mean mountains of perfectly edible food heads to landfill rather than to people’s stomachs. The figures were jaw dropping, particularly when he explained that sometimes they’d like to save more food but often simply don’t have the space in the van to take it all.
Afterwards, the café’s staff played some wonderfully eccentric music with an instrument that might have been a xylophone and one that was definitely a trombone.
At the end, I’m pretty sure all the guests gave as generously as they could and there was such a positive, upbeat feeling in the room that it masked my guilt at not previously appreciating what a wasteful bunch we are or doing enough about it. I will try never to throw away something because it’s a day or two past the sell-by date.
This blog is supposed to be a light-hearted look at the food I eat as I cover the Tour. I make no secret of the fact I like a nice meal and I know that there are people for whom food is not taken for granted. If I miss dinner at some point during the next three weeks I will try not to complain, although I fear I’m just not a good enough person, but I will at least think of the café and the people who turn up with next to nothing and are fed well by volunteers.
The Tour always throws up one extraordinary night out with colleagues but I’ve never experienced anything quite like Saturday evening. It reminded us all, I think, that the Tour de France is just a sporting event, and that we are incredibly privileged. It also made me think that there are people doing so much more worthwhile things with their time.
Conor said something about being proud to have us as his guests (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to me, to be honest), but I think it was the other way round. I felt privileged to learn more about their project. It was a stroke of genius to serve us a tasty meal and then tell us that the food had effectively been taken from the bins of big corporations.
My thanks to David for the invitation, to Conor and all the staff for their hospitality, to Adam for the food and the inspirational message and to my fellow guests for the company. If you want to find out more about the café, they’re on Facebook.