On April 10th a huge fire destroyed France’s last remaining refugee camp in Dunkirk. The situation around Calais just kept getting worse. There are currently around 750 people scattered across Northern France, living in terrible conditions and in constant fear of waking up to pepper spray. For a year the French government have been ignoring court pleas to provide basic aid and endorsing the CRS to brutalize defenceless people. Volunteers work even harder to locate people for distribution. Police destroy supplies and shelter regularly. Refugee Community Kitchen has gone mobile and still makes 2000 meals a day, feeding people twice. As news of the refugee crisis has dried up somewhat, so have the donations. The threat of trenchfoot looms due to a shortage of shoes and socks and a lack of sanitation. Wildly thinking of what I could do to help whilst stumbling down a mountain in the Lake District, I hatched a plan to organise a fundraiser-banquet.
Believe it or not this is a truncated version of events- I could probably write a book about the real thing taking over my life. Most of the credit for the initial planning stage goes to the incredible Ottolenghi banquet that I attended a couple of weeks after returning from the Lakes… Coexist Community Kitchen’s beautifully refurbished events space, illuminated by hundreds of fairy lights, was artfully decorated with colourful ribbons which transported the room to the Middle East. Two long tables, each seating 60, stretched all the way down the room encouraging convivial fans to break British tradition and chat amongst themselves. It was a smash sucess. The vibe created by delicious food shared between friends and new acquaintances, combined with a worthy cause and a huge creative effort was one of the most heart warming things I had ever experienced. I meant to write about it then but I ran the risk of sounding like Ottolenghi’s stalker (and I was distracted by my birthday).
Using Ottolenghi’s banquet as a template I pitched the idea to the Head Chef at Pinkmans. He loved it. Food cooked and served in the traditional way that refugees eat in their home countries. Two long tables. Continually flowing sharing dishes starting with mezze and sourdough. It was all looking possible now that the Pinkmans brand was on board. I spent whole days pouring over recipe books, photocopying anything that fit the Middle Eastern theme and sounded delicious. I pitched it to Steven (the owner) and after hours of being grilled on the finer details and sifting out overcomplicated ideas, we had a menu fixed for the 7th July.
Let me iterate how utterly clueless and inexperienced I was in the world of event planning and catering. Ari, my guru who runs the CoExist projects at Hamilton House, quickly brought me up to speed with the enormity of the task ahead. I familiarized myself with Google Sheets. Learnt how to Bcc people into an email (a notable achievement). Stephen transformed my abysmal poster. My well informed housemates helped me to write a press release. The lovely man at the Clifton Printing Service gave me hundreds of beautiful pink leaflets and posters- for free. The Bristol Post published us in their Whats On section. I roamed the streets with a Tupperware full of wallpaper paste, painting the town pink and giving out flyers at local food markets. Email by email it was coming together. I’m still in shock that a few messages sent from a gmail account I had just created could be forming the foundations of something that seemed too material not to crumble upon them.
An eagerness for any excuse to test out recipes on my willing housemates enabled me to refine and memorize the dishes. Who could complain about eating smoked beetroot sprinkled with caramelized nuts on a Tuesday evening? I was absolutely amazed that a gently heated pan of sugar melts into a golden pool, ready to transfigure their subject with an irresistible crunchy shell. If you’re looking for new ways to cook beetroot I cannot recommend smoking it with a little thyme and lemon rhind enough; the vegetable retains its vibrant colour and has a gorgeous woody depth to it. However, unless you desire a restaurant filled with smoke- avoid cooking 20kg at once. There was a constant supply of huge bunches of fresh herbs overflowing from the fridge or standing in glasses of water on the windowsill offering their vibrant flavours, making sure that each one had its place on the menu. Stalks and all, they were constantly devoured, pulverized alongside onions, garlic and a host of spices to transform the humble chickpea in crispy falafels which regularly made their way into appreciative mouths.
The menu was a pretty accurate representation of all of my favourite dishes. Meze with an emphasis on hummus, lots of tahini, sweet roasted peppers blended with nuts, heavily salad orientated, plenty of aubergine, herby soft fish-cakes, spiced koftas and indulgent puddings. I love making the burnt aubergine dip, it’s so versatile and complicated: the crunchy freshness of the concassé tomatoes and cucumbers contrasted with the buttery aubergine, the fruity bitterness from the pomegranate molasses and the sharpness of the lemon juice contrasted with the creamy tahini. There is an exciting weirdness about a whole aubergine nestled amongst the ashes of a barbeque or tossed bare into the pizza oven, their skins slowly shriveling and crisping whilst their insides collapse into a soft smokey heaven.
The run up to the event was plagued by uncertainty; I had no way of knowing if I’d planned it correctly, or how many people would come, or if I’d ordered enough food and tables, or if we had time to do everything. Spreadsheets and maths are not my strongsuits but by some miracle these dubious and nearly illegible tables, calculated mentally by testing out recipes and inflating them to feed first 100 and then down to 60, actually turned out to be pretty accurate. That being said, due to a small miscommunication Total Produce accidentally over-supplied us with enough stock to open a grocery shop in the Pinkmans dough room- which I later turned into a hummus factory, caking the walls in artfully flavoured orange and pink splodges. Me and Eddie cracked on with the prep in the evening prior to the event, the latter spending two hours chopping up more fresh herbs than are grown in Jekka’s herb farm.
I am infinitely grateful to the sixteen brilliant and discerning people who helped in various ways, each playing an absolutely integral role and most definitely saving my arse. The amount of work Alex put in designing the ‘deserts’ (always spell check your poster) and pulling an 18 hour shift with me was beyond anything I could’ve dreamed of. He designed a perfect pistachio mousse filled sourgh-doughnut which I could eat everyday (my dad swears it’s the best he’s ever eaten) and an orange and polenta cake topped with date cream and a caramelized fig. On banquet day he made it to Pinkmans first at six thirty sharp, pulling me together with his seasoned baker’s early morning vitality. Excitedly sweeping up half the kitchen into my tiny Aygo we began the mad rush around. The CoExist Community Kitchen, a masterpiece of organisation, was ours for the whole day. Spacious, bright and primely located it is the belly of their indispensable projects at Hamilton House. We aclimatized ourselves, exhilarated by the opportunity to orchestrate our own kitchen, and began the bulk of the prep.
Falafels were mixed, shaped, tasted and chilled; the air was filled by the satisfying noise of chopping and slicing; flavours were balanced; lemons were squeezed and cloves of garlic crushed; dates were reduced into a sticky, salty jam, beaten with soft butter and rolled into perfect sausages; a towering vat of potatoes somnolently began to bubble; inviting smells emanated from a simmering pan of spiced tomato sauce. Three volunteers toiled patiently for hours with the gruelling tasks of peeling and washing up, enduring my nonsensical jabbering and quelled hysteria. As the day wore on I was increasingly shocked by how steadily everything was achieved (baring in mind I’m a notorious faffer), by mid afternoon nearly everything was either made or prepped and awaiting Eddie’s magic touch.
My other angel, also named Alex, single-handedly transformed the bare events space into a grotto of fairy lights and colourful Indian patterns, softly lit by the hanging lights and the glow from mum’s tasteful candles set in lavender ringed jam jars. When the full squad arrived everything came together in a hive of activity; it’s incredibly useful having friends who are all highly experienced in the hospitality industry. Guests were welcomed with Harry’s fashionable gin and sumac syrup cocktail- garnished with a choice of cardamom or lime. Friends ranging from university to Calais, and strangers from God knows where arranged themselves along the tables and began scooping up olive oil pooled in spicy carrot/ beetroot hummus, nutty muhammara, and baba ganoush with hunks of heavenly freshly baked Pinkmans foccacia, walnut sourdough and olive bread. In the kitchen I flapped about with nothing to do except summon the nerve to welcome everyone with a few spluttering spontaneous lines, this was unfortunately a regular occurrence as each course required a flavour introduction.
In hindsight we had an abundance of food. After the meze, which was enough in itself to fill a rumbling belly, three elaborate Middle Eastern salads followed. The smoked beetroot topped with caramelized nuts, dill, coriander and yoghurt; green beans served with freekeh and coated by creamy tahini, fiery chilli flakes and parsley; and a refreshing combination of oranges, mejool dates, radishes, red onion, rocket and fennel seed. At this point the hyperactivity had given way to a peaceful lull before clearing; with more chefs than could possibly spoil a broth, plating up was an absolute dream. Enjoying the absence of any kitchen hierarchy, I seesawed between helping Nick with the washing up and helping Eddie to present the mains. Ostensibly plain but deliciously spiced lamb and beef koftas were artistically transformed with a drizzling of tahini sauce, a splattering of pomegranate molasses and a sprinkling of pine nuts. Roasted strips of chermoula aubergine flopped on a bed of a lemony bulgar wheat, olive, raisin, dill and pine nut salad, dressed with piped golden yoghurt tinted by threads of saffron. Perfectly crispy batata harra potatoes with coriander, lemon and roasted peppers glistened colourfully. Finally came the soft, herby fish-cakes served in a rich pool of thick tomato sauce with thinly sliced mint scattered over the top. The mammoth portions were gobbled up out of sight as soon as they re-entered the kitchen- sharing plates are an excellent way to reduce waste, and leftovers were sent to the annual Pinkmans summer barbeque.
In what now feels like one massive blur I thanked everyone, shiny faced but exuberant, and ploughed through the long clear up. All the months worth of effort, all the generosity and all of the bottomless patience from everyone involved managed to raise £1,175 for Help Refugees- more than I had thought possible for such a long time! Unexpectedly, I really loved organising the whole thing; cooking and improving the menu brightened up quite a few monotonous days. The dedication from everybody who helped, topped off by the amount of people who came to support and enjoy it is hands-down the most heart warming experience of my life.