The heart-warming story of how a group of friends came together to cook for the NHS. Words by Imogen Lepere.
At the start of March 2020, Lulu Dillon found herself furloughed. The film she was working on as a PA had been suspended indefinitely due to growing concerns about the pandemic. A friend called Clem, a doctor, had been planning on visiting for dinner to cheer her up, but when four of her patients were diagnosed with Covid-19, decided she couldn’t take the risk. Knowing Clem was due to go on night shifts in the ICU unit the week after, Lulu decided to show her support by filling her freezer with Clem’s favourite meal, homemade lasagne.
‘Food is a way of creating order when times are tough. It clearly meant so much to her that I decided to call the other medics I knew from university and offer to do the same,’ says Lulu.
Chef Angela Hartnett played a vital role in Cook-19.
Among those who saw the post was Michelin-starred chef Angela Hartnett, a long-time friend and neighbour of the Dillon family. Her restaurants, Murano and Cafe Murano, were closed and in her own words she ‘wanted to do something other than clean out the cupboards.’
Alex Hely-Hutchinson, a university friend of Lulu’s and chef proprietor of London restaurants 26 Grains and Stoney Street, also offered her expertise. Initially the three cooked in their own kitchens, using Lulu’s dad’s garage as their distribution hub. They focused on care packages of five meals and dry goods for NHS staff who had become infected on the front line or who needed to self-isolate. Some of the early packages included butterfly cupcakes from Lulu’s 84-year-old grandma, who continues to shield and ‘worry incessantly about everyone else’.
As nominations from friends of friends kept rolling into the Cook-19 Instagram page, the team decided they needed more facilities. ‘People ask how NHS staff found us in the beginning, but so many were having a total nightmare it grew exponentially.’
Angela’s old friend Greg Lawson, CEO of Smart Hospitality, had a kitchen in Bermondsey big enough for chefs to socially distance, and was looking for an opportunity to support a not- for-profit. Three of Lulu’s oldest friends – Mel, Carly and Daisy – volunteered to organise distribution and mobilise the workforce, which by now included actors Gemma Chan and Dominic Cooper, friends of Lulu’s from the film industry, who worked tirelessly as delivery Drivers.
Hollywood stars Dominic Cooper and Gemma Chan delivering meals (© Dominic Cooper)
Word spread throughout the industry, with local restaurateurs digging into their larders for ingredients and brands such as Fortnum and Mason donating stock, including 1,000 Easter eggs. ‘We had about 40 chefs a week, including the teams from Hawksmoor, Stoney Street and Wahaca, producing 1,300 meals a day. Those in the food world love to cook for people who appreciate it and they’re adept at being positive problem solvers.’
Dishes were hearty and homely, the sort of flavours that whisk you back to the Saturday afternoons of childhood: lasagne, chicken pie and creamy mac and cheese. ‘It was exactly the sort of food you’d cook your loved ones – although prepared by professional chefs, many of whom work in Michelin-starred kitchens. What was so humbling was that NHS staff kept offering to pay or even volunteer on their one day off a week. But it was a gift from a grateful group of inessential workers to the essential, so naturally we wouldn’t hear of it.’
In the first week at their new kitchen, the wife of an ICU anaesthetist at a central London hospital emailed. She was deeply concerned about her husband and his colleagues, sketching a desperate picture of several collapsing mid-shift from fatigue and lack of proper nutrition. Used to focusing on care packages, the Cook-19 team hadn’t foreseen taking on responsibility for an entire ward but were determined to step up to the plate. ‘Our aim was to organise a contactless drop of 100 meals every 24 hours, ensuring those in ICU would be fed throughout the day and night,’ says Lulu. ‘The team was putting in 18-hours, seven days a week. But every time a new hospital called, we couldn’t say no. We kept thinking, if they can do what they’re doing, of course we can find a way of making this happen.’ By the end of the first lockdown, £200,000 had been donated, allowing 156 volunteers to feed 13 ICU wards in hospitals across London.
Staff at St. Peters Hospital receiving meals from Cook-19 (© Dominic Cook-19)
Lulu believes that in some ways it was watching the dedication with which junior doctors and nurses cared for her mother (an excellent cook) when she was dying of cancer that inspired Cook-19. ‘My debt to them, and my gratitude for what they did for my mum, is immeasurable and constant. There’s something viscerally upsetting about anybody going hungry, but even more so when it’s brave people putting their own health on the line to do life-saving work.’
By June, the hospital trust had developed their own protocols for getting meals into hospitals. Supermarkets brought on extra drivers and supply chains caught up. Those once elusive delivery slots are now far easier to get hold of. But the Cook-19 story embodies some of the more tender things to have come out of the pandemic – the desire to help strangers in need and the very human impulse to turn to food to convey the things we struggle to put into words.