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‘People out there, they need our help’: Pulling a community together with food

By Killian Faith-Kelly

In the north choir aisle of Southwark Cathedral, there is a memorial to a man called Thomas Cure. 

Cure earned himself a small fortune making saddles for Elizabeth I, and used some of it to buy the land that now houses Borough Market. 

In 1584, he gave the land to United St Saviours, a charity in Southwark which, to this day, uses the money it generates to fund charitable endeavours in the area.

Enter Mike Donovan. In 2014, aged 61, he stood in the kitchen of his Bermondsey cafe – a mile-and-a-half from Southwark Cathedral – cooking someone’s full English and looking out his window, yet again, at some teenagers sitting around doing nothing. 

Pictured top: Mike Donavan in his Bermondsey Community Kitchen (Picture: Killian Faith-Kelly)

It brought him back to his childhood in the area. 

“I thought, ‘this is ridiculous’,” Mike said. “I had loads of chances when I was at school – why was no one giving these kids a chance?”

And so the Bermondsey Community Kitchen was born. Mike decided he’d use the derelict upstairs of his cafe in Market Place, Rotherhithe, to train 18-24 year-olds as chefs. 

Initial running costs were covered by two grant-making organisations – a stranger who overheard Mike despairing about getting an electricity supply convinced his employers to cover the £15k it would have cost. 

And the capital – the cookers and pots and pans and all the other equipment Mike and his family and friends hauled up the stairs, that came from United St Saviours and its saddle-making man.

The Bermondsey Community Kitchen, next to The Blue Market in Market Place (Picture: Google Street View)

The stairs were a real pain. Mike’s friend David Reid, who grew up on the same street as him, carried two tons of sand and cement up them and laid the floor. “I sort of bullied him into that,” said Mike. “He’s never refused me anything since we were two years old, that boy.”

David is now their chairman.

Once that was done, they had an opening. Raymond Blanc said he’d visited for 20 minutes, and ended up staying for two hours. And they were off – training unemployed young adults and getting them jobs.

Before long, Mike’s daughter, Shannon – “the brains of the operation” – suggested they put raised beds on estates, which brought neighbours together in ways they hadn’t expected. 

“This Iranian guy wanted to grow chillies, and this Nigerian woman wanted to grow tomatoes. They’re down watering the plants with their families, ain’t spoke to one another in 10 years, and now they’re talking and looking after each other’s plants, and their kids are talking to each other.”

Then one day in Iceland, Mike saw “an old boy with a sandwich, bottle of pop and crisps. For his dinner – that’s a disgrace.” 

So they started their next project – a cooking course for senior bachelors. 

“They all came in and said ‘where’s our dinner?’ I said ‘it’s up there where you’re gonna effing cook it, up you get.” Now they all go to the pub together.

Then there were classes for women trying to get back into work after pregnancy. And for tenants’ associations to get their hygiene certificates so they could serve food on their estates.

And when Covid came, and all that was stopped, Mike and his wife started making dinners to hand out in whichever council wards would fund them. 

Their record is 550 meals in a week, but they’re hoping they can break it.

When Mike was asked if it was a lot of work for a 69-year-old, he responded with a story – one day his phone rang, and it was an older lady, asking was he Mike? Yes he was. Well where was her dinner? He was confused. 

She said she used to get her dinner delivered by Mike every week, but this week she didn’t and now she had no dinner. 

Mike realised he’d stopped getting funding from her council, so he’d had to stop delivering there. “I nearly cried. That keeps me going. People like her – they’re out there, and they need our help. And until something stops me, I’m gonna carry on doing it.”

Pictured top: Mike Donavan in his Bermondsey Community Kitchen (Picture: Killian Faith-Kelly)

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