Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood take note: the nation’s brightest bakers aren’t to be found in a fancy marquee with Mel and Sue poking their fingers into freshly baked treats while coming out with naughty innuendos. Instead, the most dedicated cooks can be located just off London’s Brick Lane, where they’re keeping a cool head whipping up sugary delights like raspberry and beetroot brownies, and lemon and courgette polenta cake.
In Rise bakery’s small yet functional kitchen – reminiscent of one found in your typical primary school – bakers are tying on their striped aprons and kicking off a day’s work on the hottest day of the year so far. But this isn’t your ordinary bakery. Producing the goods are people who have experienced homelessness. Trainee bakers come into the kitchen and spend 10 weeks learning a wide range of recipes, with the help of an experienced chef, and are encouraged to study for their level 2 food hygiene exam.
Once they’ve completed the course, they’re tackling the big job of fulfilling orders for Rise Bakery’s customers, which are a mix of online, wholesale and corporate. The aim of the social enterprise, part of Providence Row, a charity helping homeless people in east London, is to build confidence and the skills to help find employment – in or out of the food industry.
Maybe this will help me get work in the food industry. I’m hoping for a placement in a nice hotel
One of the recipients of the course is Jason, 29, who is hard at work in the kitchen fulfilling customers’ orders. It’s clear from the grin on his face that he’s enjoying baking after spending three months with Rise Bakery and completing his hygiene certificate. With one eye on the Kenwood mixer, as it blends the eggs, sugar and butter for the double chocolate brownies he’s making, he tells me he was spurred on to join the baking course by fellow trainee and friend Will, who he lives with at a nearby hostel. Now he’s learnt to knock up everything from carrot cake to banana bread, and the weekly sessions of beating, binding and mixing have added zest to his life.
“It’s really meditative and relaxing,” he says. “Before, I was going to prison, I had issues with my partner. But now, through the hostel, I’m cooking, shopping, going to football. Things are going really well.”
Jason says Rise Bakery has helped him gain confidence both inside and outside the kitchen. “Maybe this will help me get work in the food industry,” he says. “I’m hoping for a placement in a nice hotel.”
There is a really strong team effort in the kitchen. On the counter, Will, 42, is chopping blocks of chocolate. After also spending three months on the baking training scheme, he creates the recipe without any instructions. “It’s really helped my confidence,” he says. “I’ve learnt how to cook and developed my skills. In the long term I’d really like to find a part-time job.”
This is the ultimate goal, says Dominic Gates, enterprise and training manager at Rise Bakery, as we sit on a bench on the rooftop garden surrounded by herbs and fruits, such as strawberries, black-berries and gooseberries, which are picked and used for the recipes. “The primary outcome is to get someone into a job. Another is to improve their well-being or decrease their dependency on substances. But at the same time, it’s important to manage the business side; ultimately we are a business and we want high-quality goods coming out of the bakery.”
But why baking? “It’s very therapeutic,” says Gates. “Trainees get to see the end result, get a product out of it and they’re taught to be creative. We’re selling brownies online that go for £12 a box, so it’s important it’s a high-end product. They’re creating a product they’re really proud of.”
Since its relaunch in April Rise Bakery has attracted 21 trainees, with five completing the scheme and two moving into employment.
Running Rise Bakery isn’t without its challenges but it’s rewarding, says head baker Simon Wilcox. “We have trainees with wide-ranging abilities,” he says. “Some are dream bakers like Jason and Will, others might have learning difficulties; we have deaf people, people who can’t stand for very long. Everyone has their own different challenges but what’s great about that is watching people work together. One person might be struggling with a dish but another will come over and help them out, and cooking in a restaurant is about working together. The great thing is just watching people come in, have a go at something new and, yeah, it has its challenges and dishes sometimes go wrong but we just start it again.”
Everyone has their own different challenges but what’s great about that is watching people work together
The chef and trainees have to be determined because Rise Bakery is a business, selling around 40 boxes of brownies via its website every month and sending orders to nearby businesses, including five wholesale customers such as Café from Crisis, Close-Up and Second Shot Coffee.
As we wrap up the interview, Will and Jason are working together to spread the gooey double chocolate brownie mixture into the baking tray and put it in the oven. Several days later, their batch of brownies arrives for me. They’re heavenly. Who needs The Great British Bake Off when these brownies taste so good and create such sweet results for those affected by homelessness? Warning: just don’t count the calories.
DOUGH FROM DOUGH Food is changing lives, finds Adam Forrest
British food was once the butt of bad jokes around the world. But our culinary habits have undergone a transformation in recent decades, and not simply because of the growth in high-end restaurants. An increasing number of social businesses across Britain are harnessing the power of food and the art of cooking to change lives in significant ways.
Big Issue Invest (BII), our organisation’s social investment arm, has long recognised the potential of food projects to tackle poverty and create opportunities.
The Beyond Food foundation is just one of the culinary enterprises BII has invested in. Simon Boyle, a Savoy Hotel-trained chef, was inspired to start the foundation after volunteering in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. “I came back with a fresh perspective,” Boyle explains. “I really wanted to use my skills for something worthwhile, and use food as a medium to inspire people.”
The foundation offers a range of training courses for people who have been through homelessness, and works in partnership with south London restaurant Brigade. Boyle says around 60 or 70 people a year get jobs, either as chefs, kitchen staff or in front-of-house hospitality. “The people that come to us are ready to propel themselves forward in life. It’s inspiring to see them overcome all the challenges homelessness brings.”
Chequers Kitchen Cookery School in Kent caters to a whole range of disadvantaged people. Although the school offers paid, recreational cooking classes, charities refer families struggling with food poverty, adults struggling with employability or older people struggling to get by on their own for free lessons in the kitchen.
Some come to us to improve how they cook, and some come to improve their employment and career prospects
“Some come to us to improve how they cook, and some come to improve their employment and career prospects – but we make sure everyone has a lot of fun,” says co-director Stephanie Hayman.
Raw Ingredients, the community interest company that runs Café Van Gogh in Brixton, also believes food can “unify a community”. The vegetarian café provides training opportunities and cooking workshops for socially marginalised people in the area.
And Papi’s Pickles is a family-run enterprise offering Indian and Sri Lankan pickles and other dishes, while providing training and jobs for unemployed women from Indian and Sri Lankan communities across the UK. The beans in your coffee cup can also be the catalyst for change. In Leeds, Cielo runs a group of not-for-profit cafés that train disadvantaged people to become baristas, as well as working with a roster of volunteers with learning difficulties and mental health problems.
And Change Please (pictured above) – a partnership between the Old Spike Roastery and The Big Issue – has seen a group of homeless people (including some of our own vendors) trained as baristas so they can sell fresh coffee from mobile carts on London high streets.
“There are many inspiring social entrepreneurs using food to tackle social problems,” says Big Issue Invest’s CEO Nigel Kershaw. “In the same way buying The Big Issue creates an instant, tangible change in someone’s life, each bite can create a transformation, whether it’s in employment prospects or the prospects of a community. We understand how good, smart businesses can do great things.”