Michelin-starred gastropub chef cooks for NHS

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Good deeds: chef Sally Abé is giving back to society
Good deeds: chef Sally Abé is giving back to society

Related tags Coronavirus Gastro pubs

Cooking meals for the NHS and Age UK at a charitable organisation during the coronavirus lockdown has helped Sally Abé – head chef of the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms – maintain the daily structure that most hospitality workers need. But she has also managed to find a silver lining in the upheaval.

Abé has been well known in culinary world for years, especially in the gastropub community and more so this year when she deservedly took the top spot​ on the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list, at which time she was also crowned Gastropub Chef of the Year.

But, a greater wealth of Brits got to know Abé when she graced TV screens this year for the first time on BBC’s Great British Menu​.

Although she didn’t make it to the banquet, the chef showcased her exceptional skills and talent, as well as the kindness and camaraderie on offer many professional in kitchens.

However, Great British Menu ​is unlikely to be front and centre of many people’s minds currently, not least those who work in hospitality.

The coronavirus lockdown has thrown the sector into a tumultuous and uncertain scenario.

No work, no colleagues and no people to please has, no doubt, placed many chefs in dark and unfamiliar situations. For Abé, the thought of not working for an unknown amount of time, admittedly, would have resulted her in “going out of my mind”.

So, to help combat this, the chef began cooking with a charity and has ensured her days have structure to them.

“I’m helping out at a charity called Reffetorio Felix that normally has people coming in for a three-course meal,” said Abé.

Full of volunteers

“We contacted the charity and asked if they wanted any help and now it’s full of volunteers. Last week, I started and now my former sous chef is doing it too.

“We’re cooking food for the NHS through charity Hospitality for Heroes, Age UK and a mental health charity called Smart. We’re doing 360 meals a day – 100 for the NHS and 100 for Age UK.”

Being in a kitchen with other chefs – at a safe distance, of course, has helped Abé. “If I wasn’t doing this, I would be going out of my mind.

“I have cooked a few meals for the charity before, but it’s not something I usually have time to do. It’s really nice to be able to cook for people and give something back, especially when I’m in a really fortunate position.”

The chef and her husband Matt Abé – head chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay – have spent more time together over the past few weeks than ever before, she points out as a silver lining.

“We’ve been doing yoga every day to give ourselves a bit of routine and structure because, without that, it’s really hard,” she explained.

“It’s the longest I’ve ever spent with my husband since we met in 2008. It is nice to be able to enjoy our time together and we’ve been inspired to cook different things together and for each other.”

Both being leaders in the kitchen, Abé can’t stress enough how important structure is for them.

“Routine, as a chef or anyone in hospitality, is the most important part of our lives because we work so much and so often and such long hours,” she continued. “So, to then find yourself with nothing to do and with no end in sight, is very unsettling. I think to have something you can pour a bit of energy into is good.”

Although there is some light to be found in such a dark situation, Abé is clear that the current circumstances are very serious for the sector as a whole.

Reflecting on the beginnings of the lockdown, she said it was a big worry when Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised people to stay away from pubs, bars and clubs.

A massive worry

“It was scary because we didn’t know how we were going to support the staff and that was a massive worry,” she said.

The Harwood Arms in Fulham, west London, closed before the official lockdown and big care packages were prepared for every team member, containing food and drink.

But there is some security now: “The business owners have had all of the staff on furlough – everyone. Even those who have worked for us for a month,” said Abé, who is also on furlough.

Before furlough, though, the business had to be closed down and secured. “Every one of the chefs came in, even on their days off, to clean down the kitchen.

“It was really upsetting when we, as a team, talked about what was going to happen. We have all worked really hard and it was heart wrenching to have it all taken away from us. I just cried.”

She continued: “That has been hard for a lot of chefs to come to terms with because we all go to work because we love going to work to do what we do.

“I keep in touch with the guys on WhatsApp to make sure they’re OK and if I don’t hear from one of them, I call them or text direct. All of the staff are on furlough, even me.”

For the future, the chef is adamant the business will reopen once the restrictions are lifted.

“We are a good, successful and strong business, and we’re going to do everything we can to reopen the Harwood Arms. But there’s only so long a business can exist without money.”

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