The Host: “Everyone in Scotland should have access to Scottish food”

Since we first held an event at the Edinburgh Larder Café in July 2015, it has become a frequent and friendly venue for our communal dinners. Its founder Eleanor Cunningham has gone on to set up a sister social enterprise, Edinburgh Food Social, to teaching school children and adults about cooking with Scottish ingredients, in Gracemount, where TRJFP Edinburgh began. For the second in a series of interviews with the people who make TRJFP Edinburgh happen, I spoke to Eleanor after the first Edinburgh Food Social indoor market at the Biscuit Factory in November 2016 to find out what the thinking behind it all is.

Why did you start the Edinburgh Larder?

I set up the Larder to talk about Scottish produce and to do that right in city centre. I wanted people that live there and people visiting from all over the world to know what Scottish produce is because so many people just didn’t know. People would come over to see what we were doing and they would have no idea. What is Scottish food? What, historically, is Scottish food? They weren’t aware, coming from other countries, even though Spain has Scottish langoustines and people know about venison and haggis and stuff like that, there’s just not this understanding of what Scottish food is. There weren’t enough people showcasing that anywhere near the Royal Mile and I wanted to do that in an affordable way. The only people doing that seven years ago were Michelin starred restaurants, only affordable to a certain demographic. I wanted to make it affordable, and in a cafe environment, even if it was as a treat. And that’s really why I opened the bistro as well, to use more produce, to use more things like game, and foraged ingredients and things that we couldn’t really afford to use in the cafe.

Something else we’ve done ever since we started is to teach people about foraging as well, through talks with suppliers, and visits, with our staff and with our customers. And the social enterprise was just an extension of that, to make that accessible to everybody. That’s the aim, hopefully: to say that everyone who lives in Scotland should be able to afford that kind of food (if that’s what they want to buy) and that they should have the skills to cook with it (if that’s what they want to do). It’s not about forcing people to do that, but so many people came to us saying “I don’t know how to cook from scratch, I feel like I’ve completely lost my confidence in the kitchen, I don’t know how to cook for my family, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start making something with celeriac” or those kind of unusual ingredients that are seasonal in Scotland.

“How many generations of cooking skills have we lost? It’s a big, big problem”

And then people like Food for Thought brought primary kids into the bistro, and we’d do lessons. That’s what made it hit home how important it is to be working with the kids. On both sides – to see what it did for the chefs, who were stuck in a kitchen doing their thing, not really having much time to think about what they’re doing and why that was important. We had to say to them “you’re a chef, they’ll be completely in awe of you, don’t be nervous”. They got so much out of it, they were really proud of themselves that they’d given this amazing experience. A lot of the kids said they hadn’t cooked at home for six months to a year. They had no idea about seasonality at all – we were preparing raspberries with them in August and they had no idea that that was the right time of year to be using raspberries in Scotland

And what response did you get?

They really enjoyed it, and got on board with it. A lot of them came alive. One of them was the life and soul when we were cooking, and the teacher said he doesn’t say a word in class. It was amazing to see how much they got out of it.

We did two sessions over two days, six classes all together. It made me think about how much of a lack of that kind of stuff there is in schools.

They made everything from scratch, it was very hands on. Quite often there was a focus on leftovers and avoiding waste, so they’d make bridies or something out of chicken you might have left over from a roast.

And did they go home and try it out?

They said they would!

Why were they not cooking at home?

We didn’t ask specifically. Some said they did it quite often. You do, as a parent, get into a thing where you get home at the end of the night and you’re tired and it becomes quite difficult to do that and it becomes a sort of weekend activity. But if they’re not getting it at school either because a lot of schools don’t have the capacity, where else are they going to find out about that sort of thing?

I do a lot with my daughter because I love cooking at the weekend. I went to uni and I’d been forced to cook at home. I became veggie at 12 and my mum said you’ll have to cook for yourself… And then my family said “we want some of that” so I had to scale it up and I’ve never learned how not to do that! Which is probably why I opened a cafe, because I enjoy cooking in large quantities.

Everyone at uni just made baked potatoes and ready meals. And that was 20 years ago – so how many generations of that skill have we lost? It’s a big, big problem. Cooking is a life skill, and people are moving into university and away from home without it.

There are all sorts of other issues at the moment. A massive shortage of Home Economics teachers, for example. Training takes four years, whereas all other post-grad teacher training takes one year. So if you’ve worked in the food industry for four years surely it should be the same thing, you do a year of teacher training and then you’d be qualified. It puts people off. It’s really difficult to get into in the first place, the course itself doesn’t have enough respect from parents or kids, it’s not a grand title… Like the catering industry, it’s seen as something you might do on your way to something else.

Maybe this is a good opportunity for new ways of learning. Home Economics is so outdated.

It’s not always called that. One woman told me it’s called Resource Management.

None of the names refer to food! Maybe we agree that food is of such importance it shouldn’t even have its own isolated subject, it should be present across the curriculum.

That’s great, but that’s not going to give you practical applications of cooking. I don’t want to go onto YouTube and watch people cooking, it needs to be practical.

I don’t think it should be brought into other subjects, I think other subjects should be brought into food. When we’ve done stuff with high schools particularly, it’s clear how the things they’re doing like maths don’t have a practical application. So they’re coming into Home Economics saying they don’t know what a quarter teaspoon is. They know what a quarter is, but when it comes to applying it to something practically, they can’t get over that in their head.

Then there’s history, geography… I think that’s why so many have lost the importance of food in our culture and society, they’ve forgotten how it links to our history. Everyone is massively proud of being from Scotland but they don’t relate that to food. It’s on a sideline and forgotten about in so many respects, but it’s central to everything I think. There’s talk with the Curriculum for Excellence that different subjects should link up with each other and I think food is an amazing way to do that. More and more schools are asking us to come and work with them and we’re having to work out how to finance that because schools don’t really have a budget for it.

At the Larder education was always a huge thing and we needed to get out and do more with people. It’s an incredibly difficult way to get people to cook in. We have our suppliers and we talk to them every week and say “what have you got that’s good or might need to be used up?” Really nice food at a reasonable cost. We’ve never had a menu and said “that’s our menu, we’ve got to stick with that”. It’s a way that so many people aren’t used to cooking anymore. They get a recipe and they go to the supermarket, or wherever, and they go buy those ingredients. They don’t go to a market and say “what have you got, farmer, that you’ve grown this month?” and take it home and just make a soup with it.

It sometimes feels like making soup from whatever’s available is all I ever do, I’d like to cook more from recipes.

I can’t be bothered! That’s really lucky, that shows you’ve cooked a lot in your life, you’ve got the confidence. A lot of people wouldn’t know where to start with putting together a soup from scratch. There’s no cookery classes like that. There’s Martin Wishart Cook School, and then there’s the Cyrenians. Cyrenians are amazing but they don’t tend to use produce that’s seasonal and local and they have a very specific market – those on the fringes of society who are in need of help, vulnerable.

There seemed to be a massive gap. There are lots of people in normal society who don’t have those skills as well. And they don’t have a huge amount of money either. When we tried to take over the Engine Shed with a few other social enterprises, the woman we were working with in the community there said “I’ve lost all my confidence in the kitchen, I don’t know where to start”. She was in a regular job, she didn’t have loads of money. Either they’ve never learned those skills or they’ve fallen by the wayside.

But she must have had some degree of confidence in order to come to you?

It was just us being there and me saying we wanted to do these courses and her saying that would be amazing. We need to get back in touch now we’re starting to offer it! Those who came to the Larder, a lot of them were my friends. They came to the Larder and went in the veg shop and thought I don’t know what I would do with any of this. It’s not rocket science, you just need a little bit of inspiration but that’s just not out there unless you’re really involved in food.

We take it for granted. I tend to regard cooking as intuitive rather than a technical skill that I have, which means I assume a certain level of knowledge. It’s an obstacle to helping others.

You have to stand back from something and think “how am I going to make this work?” That’s what teaching is really: how am I going to make this easy for other people to understand? And it’s not teaching everything, just some basic things like how to make a stock, how to combine flavours in a salad.

But once you include ideas about seasonality, organic, local… It’s quite complex.

I try to steer away from the complicated. The guys at Gracemount have been trying to work out how to talk about climate change with the kids. It’s not about trying to encompass everything. If you talk about what’s in season, how exciting those ingredients are and how amazing they taste, it’s not about dictating to people what the right things are, it’s just giving them some basic skills. And hopefully the more they try of those kind of things the more they’ll want to buy them and think about them.

But kids don’t have buying power…

They do! Since having my daughter, I’ve noticed she’ll see things online or wherever and you’ll go somewhere and she’s immediately attracted to that thing because she’s seen it somewhere and she knows what it is. So if you walk into the shop and your kid has seen some advert for a big chocolate company that’s what they’ll want. But if they’ve been in a class and looked at a seasonal ingredient, that might be something they’ll ask for instead…

Or as well?

Maybe, yeah! But that’s better than not asking for it at all. That’s the idea, they’ll go home to their parents and start saying can we have more of that. And they have done that with amazing things like kale, they’ve been asking at Gracemount where they can get it. They’ve been unsure about it at first but then when they’ve done something with it, they’re keen to know how they can do it at home.

How do the parents respond?

Difficult to say. You don’t know what the home environment is. That’s why we wanted to offer the affordable cooking classes for adults as well. We’re doing that up at Gracemount as well. We’re offering two community lunches on Wednesday and Thursday. Basically anyone who comes along for a free lunch we’re kind of saying “you can help if you want to, come along a little bit earlier”. We’re also doing health and safety courses for people who might want to work in the food industry so if there are any young people who come along and feel like they’ve learned a lot and they’d really like to go and do that, we’re giving them the tools and qualifications to find employment. That’s part of what we’re trying to do, trying to inspire people to think about catering as a long term career. It’s an accessible thing. You just need hard work and to be keen to learn.

We just had a meeting with Gracemount High School which was closed for about three months because it was one of the schools that had building issues. They had to move all the kids out to Liberton, and traditionally those areas have a difficult relationship. A lot of the kids got involved in all sorts of horrible things, didn’t go to school, failed their exams (because it was that time of year). There were a lot of kids I heard about who were unable to find access to good food over the summer. A lot of them have been put back a year. The Home Economics teacher told me it’s been really hard to motivate them with that on top of everything else. They’ve got 20 kids over two classes and less than half are really engaged. She said if we can reward the ones that are doing really well with coming to a project like us and teaching them how to cook and then serving their friends off a food truck, hopefully the others will become engaged too.

There’s a huge shortage of really good chefs in the catering industry, and front of house people. We’re working with Sodexo as well because they’ve sponsored our food truck which is really weird, but our PR company also do PR for Sodexo and said they’re really making a massive effort to source things locally. They’ve taken over a massive plot of ground next to the Botanics and are paying a gardener so they can use all the veg he’s growing in the Botanical gardens because they run both the cafes there, and the staff canteen.

There’s only so much of a scale you can do things on as a small business and if we really are trying to change the way things are done within the education system – and there’s a lot of work being done with the NHS at the moment, too – we need to involve large scale people with the logistical capacity to tackle those challenges. Sodexo are one of those. If we can work together to make that done in a good way, then…

Do you think that’s possible?

I hope so. Sodexo are huge, they manage a lot of the school canteens I think, all sorts of contracts for banks and financial companies. There’s not that many large-scale catering contractors in the UK and they are one of them. That’s where I kind of came into contact with them initially, when I worked in finance and they were managing the kitchens. I had a really bad impression then! I’ve always been really confused why people use random things like iceberg lettuce which taste pretty horrible in comparison to a lot of other things you can buy. I started out as an office manager and I used to go and ask them questions like “why do you use this stuff?” and “why does it cost this much?” They’d say things like, because they work with this massive chain of companies, we have to go and buy in the lettuce from somewhere and then their company would sell them that lettuce to their individual sites so they would end up paying loads more than it was actually worth. That seemed like a totally bonkers way of supplying your own business. But that was what they did.

Did the people working for Sodexo in the canteen have any notion of that being a bit strange?

I think only when I went to speak to them. I would ask “why is it that when you go into a regular shop you can buy that lettuce for less?” and they would agree it was weird but that’s just the way it is.

That’s bizarre. Surely the only advantage of working at scale is cost?

I don’t know if it was that they had to charge the individual businesses different amounts and they had to make a mark up on that.

So Sodexo was probably getting it cheaper but the clients were being ripped off.

Yeah. It seemed really crazy.

Supermarkets are feeding into all the problems we have in the food system”

Can they ever fit into a system where you’re using local, seasonal ingredients?

Apparently Aldi do. I’ve spoken to quite a few of our suppliers who’ve said they are the best large scale business to work with. They pay you on time and pay you a fair price as a supplier. Peelham Farm told me that. They have a great product, they’ve worked with a lot of people, been around for a really long time.

A lot of people have said Asda will give us money, and Tesco asked to have a stall at our market but that’s where I draw the line because I don’t want to be associated with supermarkets that I feel are causing a big problem within our food system and that needs to be tackled. I know they’re an essential part of our food system and sometimes the only option people have. I don’t want to preach to people about not shopping in places like that, but I don’t want to accept funding from them because I understand that will dictate how we operate. But Sodexo said we’ll give you £2k towards the food truck because we think you’re doing great things, they haven’t stipulated what we should be doing with it, they just want their name on the back of the truck somewhere. They’ve given us the tables for the market, free metal tables for our kitchen that they weren’t using anymore, they’ve said they’ll do a program for anyone that graduates from school that wants to come and work in the catering industry, they’re really happy to develop a specific program. And they’ve said they’d like to come to Gracemount to do some volunteering there, we’ve been to the Botanics to see how they’re managing the garden there. The garden is incredible, they’ve done it in a year and it’s basically supplying their cafes and quite a significant amount of the veg that they’re sourcing is coming from there in a really quick timeframe. There’s a lot we’re learning from each other, I’ve had to kind of put my prejudices aside and think maybe we need to understand how things can be done better on that scale.

But being careful not to abandon your skepticism…

Definitely. With companies that size, their ultimate aim is profit.

Regardless of size.

It has to be with social enterprises as well, if you’re a loss-making enterprise you’re going to close. But I think when there are shareholders involved who want a share of your profit, that’s when things get really difficult. Social enterprises are being encouraged to develop income themselves so they don’t have to rely on funding all the time, and there is less funding available. People are needing to become a bit more creative.

It’s more sustainable as well. How are you managing that?

The market has been a massive part of that. With Gracemount we’ve got Climate Challenge Funding (CCF) and I think that’s where it’ll prove particularly difficult to provide a sustainable model. It’s in an area where traditionally people don’t have much money although that’s changing as well, the demographic there is quite varied. I think it’s about offering something where people who have a bit of money to spend can kind of support the ones that don’t. But it will be difficult up there to create a sustainable model. Unless we get a big amount of funding to create something like a community cafe and food hub. The amounts from CCF are only enough for a few salaries a year, not to renovate a building.

There are ideas we’ve come up with like using the food truck. There’s a younger crowd of people up there that are involved with the youth groups in Gracemount that want to look at the food businesses they could develop, all different things like healthy ready meals, baking. We’re looking at working with local farmers to use waste veg they might have to make ready meals or more community meals. We’re just trying to look at things in a different way. It will be difficult. Up here at The Biscuit Factory, because we’ve got an office here they’ve given us the space downstairs for free to do the indoor market once a month. We made quite a decent amount of profit on the first one.

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The first Edinburgh Food Social indoor market at The Biscuit Factory in November 2016

What costs did you have?

Equipment mainly, so it was a one-off cost. We had to get the electricity re-routed around the building which was about £700. We had quite a lot of staff, a bit of marketing. The next one will be over two floors so it will be quite big but it’ll only be one or two months when we can do that.

What’s the aim of the market?

To create an accessible market even over the winter months. To make good food more accessible by offering reasonably priced stalls – £30 a day, which is a lot less than the other markets. I quite often visit Belfast market, that’s where my husband’s from. It has this incredible vibe about it, everybody in the whole city goes there to shop. It’s not an exclusive market at all, it’s something that’s affordable to a lot of people because they have competition within the market – eight different fishmongers, ten butchers, twelve veg stalls.

That’s so unusual in the UK.

It is. It’s an incredible space, a lovely atmosphere, a mixture of food and crafts. It just feels inclusive which I’ve not really felt at most of the markets in Edinburgh. I felt included because I have the money and I value the food – those are exciting places for me, to talk to our suppliers. But I can see why a lot of people would feel excluded. I wanted to see something that was a bit more inclusive and accessible and easy for the stallholders. I’ve been to quite a few markets and it’s been a nightmare to set up. Most of the suppliers at the first one fed back to us that it was really well organised. It’s an incredible venue. They’ve wanted to do a market for a while so it’s quite a coincidence.

How many butchers at the next one?

(Laughs) At least one! That was the point really. I just wanted to see how logistically it worked but the point was to have fresh food producers and also to think about visiting places like the food banks and potentially offering people a different payment method on the door.

That’s the barrier at the moment.

It is a suggested donation. Quite a few people came in and didn’t give a donation. It’d be nice to work out how to make it more accessible, maybe a tokens system where you can get tokens on the door and use them to get 10% more for your money at the stalls and we could give out some of those tokens for free by working with the food banks and so on.

Brilliant. The impression I got was that the market didn’t necessarily have those aims, that it was fundraiser for what you’re doing at Gracemount. It’s quite ambitious…

It is… That’s why I wanted to start out on a basis of do one and see how it goes. And there were challenges, things we need to improve on. That was one of the points of having this space – we’re setting up a training kitchen over the road as well. If there are people that come who say well that’s great you’re saying we have access to fresh produce but we don’t know how to cook with it”, we can then offer training over the road. Hopefully the future of that is we’ll charge £50 or 70 a day for people to come along and learn how to cook if they can afford that and then offer one or two places for free. So that’s the long-term. We’ve got the space, we’ve painted it, we just need to get some equipment in there at a very low budget! We’ve got quite a few things booked in next year, baking courses.

Already?! Probably the best way to do it otherwise you’d just never get it done…

The first one is at the end of January! We’ll do it on a very limited budget. Like with the Larder, we’ve never set things up with a massive budget so we’ll just get free standing kit and a couple of ovens and some butcher’s blocks for kneading, and a sink. We’ve got a little bit of funding, from Baillie Gifford.

I know…

Interesting that you feel supermarkets are a red line.

They are feeding into all the problems that we have in the food system. But it’s the only option a lot of people have. I don’t only think it’s about that; generally as a society we don’t respect our health and we see it as quite funny a lot of the time, like there’s a lot of joking from quite a young age about how funny it is to go out and get drunk and how many pints you can have in a night and then how the next day all you want is an Irn Bru and a bacon roll. That’s our society and our sense of humour. We like to be self-deprecating. So that’s how a lot of people view health – or don’t view it. So we need to come at it as getting people to have a sense of “I do want to be better to myself, how am I going to do that?” because a lot of people will not even remotely think about that when they’re going shopping, they’ll just think “what is the quickest thing I can do, what is the cheapest thing, I don’t care where it’s from”. Everything – everything – about food has become about convenience. That’s why the supermarket thing for me is something to get away from. It’s not about class – when that side of things comes into it it makes things difficult because people stop listening. Food costs a lot less than it used to. As Pete [Ritchie, at Nourish Scotland] often says, the less income you have the higher percentage of your salary is spent on food and then it is really difficult to make a decision based on anything except cost so we need to offer people alternatives. The government needs to get better by subsidising things and understanding how many of our health issues are contributed to by poor diet, and how much money the NHS would be saved.

Is is mainly a government task, or an individual one?

There are no alternatives at the moment. If you don’t have much money, there’s no alternative. These food hubs people talk about are quite often not used that much. There needs to be more pressure put on supermarkets to do things in a different way – to stop allowing people to pay to have an end-aisle product at the height of a child’s eyes!

Can supermarkets be forced to do that?

Only by governments changing policy, and that is being discussed by the Food Commission at the moment. But it’s difficult. That was my hope, on a small scale, to provide an alternative.

And an alternative that’s a bit more fun. People make fun of what they eat – how do you make local, healthy food fun? It should be easy to create something more fun than the soul-crushing experience of supermarket shopping.

I think it would be amazing to come up with an animation that describes those situations in a funny way. I’ve thought about this for ages, going to the art college and asking some animators to do food cartoons that describe the silliness of the food system in a really funny way but that actually have a message that isn’t dictating to people, it’s not putting people down, it’s not saying that they’re wrong…

Have you met any people at Gracemount whose food situations or attitudes to food have taken you by surprise?

The kids have really surprised me, in Rosyth as well. That’s partly because of my own prejudice, I thought they would all just go bleurggh! we don’t want to eat these green things. Quite often they haven’t. We’re doing these healthy takeaway meals on the last Friday of the month in Rosyth in the food truck, cooking some of the stuff they’ve grown in the community gardens and Fife council have paid for us to be there so we ask for a suggested donation of £1 – most people give generously and you can tell that that isn’t a small thing for them. Quite often they’ll come there instead of going to the chippy and buying food for the family. There was a girl that said to me how much she loved the meat that was in something we’d made – it was lamb and I wasn’t sure how it would go down, we’d done it in a kind of kebab thing and all the kids there just ate it all. We made a curry once – it wasn’t massively spicy – and this guy bought some for his whole family and then came back 20 minutes later and said my 18 month-old daughter has eaten all of it, can I have some more! It’s great to be at the heart of a community like that that really appreciate what you’re doing. And I think there’s so much been done over there recently – they’ve developed a market, they’ve developed these community gardens. There’s just an appreciation of that, they really value it.

It’s still only once a month.

I know. It needs to be more. You never really know the situation people are living in. Someone told me about this amazing bean bag thing you can warm up in your oven and use as a kind of slow cooker, you put a hot pot in this thing and it keeps it warm so you’re not having to use gas or electric but you’re slow cooking a meal. People also might not have access to fridges and freezers and how we need to adapt what we’re doing to talk to people about what they can cook when they might not have access to those kind of things. There’s huge levels of thinking that needs to go into speaking with people in different situations.

And speaking to as many people as possible. You’re doing great things but there could be 50 food trucks going all over Edinburgh every day of the week and talking to different people, getting more and more people involved.

There’s loads of people coming to us saying they want to do something like that, they’ve just not found a channel to do it, so they’re working with us. It’s nice to provide a platform that allows people to use the skills that they have like Jamie who’s worked with us for the last two summers up at the cafe as a chef – I had no idea he had studied dietetics until a little while ago, I telling him about the social enterprise and he said that sounds amazing, I’d love to get involved and it turns out he has this qualification. He’s in his element working up in these communities, feels like he’s actually using the qualification he has and putting his chef skills to use as well. He’s doing the community meals and cooking over at Rosyth. He talked about horrific situations he went into after doing dietetics, he would visit elderly people and he came across this guy who had lost his bank card and because you can’t go into banks and talk to people anymore quite often he didn’t know what to do so he’d been sitting at home for three days without any food because he didn’t have any money, he had no family. He said he found those situations really difficult and that it was nice to be doing things in a community where you felt like you were actually supporting them without necessarily coming across that.

Not constantly dealing with the most desperate situations.

Yeah, you’re making a positive difference. But I mean that’s why I think there’s no end to what I think people could be doing because there’s situations like that all over the place and people need more help so the more people that are doing this kind of thing the better really. There’s loads of social enterprises that are setting up which is amazing, I think it’s really needed.

Interview by Charlie Hanks