A former finalist in the Country Range Student Chef Challenge has been making his mark on the industry during the coronavirus pandemic.
Charlie D’Lima, 21, made it through to the Challenge final in both 2018 and 2019 – and his latest challenge is proving equally impressive.
Like many people in the industry, the hardworking graduate has been furloughed following lockdown, and has chosen to redeploy his talents by cooking meals for NHS workers.
After completing a foundation degree in professional culinary arts at the University of Derby, Charlie spent five months working at Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus restaurant in London’s Knightsbridge.
“It was an amazing experience working for the Ramsay Group,” he says. “I think it’s really important for every chef to cook in central London – the adrenaline and competitiveness is like nowhere else. I learned a lot, especially about plating, in those five months.”
Then the opportunity arose for Charlie to go and work at Paul Ainsworth’s Michelin-starred No 6 restaurant in Padstow. “A larder chef role came up and I decided to take it,” continues Charlie. “I started in November last year. We had a brilliant Christmas and New Year and had just got an exciting new four-course menu concept in place, and all new positions in the kitchen, when coronavirus struck.
“Paul kept us on as long as possible and was really supportive. We were very aware of all of the redundancies and sackings in our sector in London, but Paul assured us that our jobs were safe, and we were all furloughed and sent back home. He actually sent a video of himself to all the team, telling us what an amazing team we are and how it was important that we keep cooking during lockdown.
“He encouraged us to do something to support the NHS and other vulnerable groups in society.”
Charlie headed home to his parents’ house in north London and immediately got in contact with the charity ‘You Donate We Deliver’. “I started cooking a few meals for NHS workers from home once or twice a week, and that soon became 40 meals twice a week, then 100 four times a week,” he says.
As his commitment grew, his domestic kitchen felt the strain and, when the heat cracked the marble splash back on his parents’ stove, Charlie knew he needed to find an alternative venue.
He explains: “I was maxing out the fridge space and it was pretty intense for my parents, who don’t work in the industry.”
Charlie persuaded three chef friends to join him and was offered the use of the kitchen at Mill Hill, a private school, along with the services of the school’s two kitchen porters. The team now makes 600 meals a day, six days a week.
Charlie plans the menu a week in advance and dishes include Boeuf Bourgignon with pickled carrot, roast potatoes and broccoli; creamy chicken pie, and fish pie made with hake sourced from the suppliers used by No 6 in Cornwall.
The meals are tubbed up in an ‘isolation room’ by a team of five people in full PPE, then distributed via a hub in Borehamwood.
The team has received “amazing feedback” and countless tweets thanking them for the food. “We had a message on Facebook saying our orange cheesecake was the best they had ever had,” says Charlie. “I’m trying to keep restaurant standard food but obviously you have to find a level because you’re on a tight budget. “The NHS deserve it and it’s only what Paul wanted us to do.”
CHARLIE’S BOSS PAUL AINSWORTH SAID:
“Lockdown was a very quick turnaround – there was so much to do and achieve to shut down the businesses safely. Charlie was worried he wouldn’t be able to get back to London in time so we told him to go. I made the video just to let everyone know their jobs were safe, to keep their mental health strong, keep moving and do something good for their community. That could be mowing a neighbour’s grass or collecting shopping for an elderly person.
“Lots of people have done amazing things and I’ve been overwhelmed, but Charlie has done more than the next level and he deserves to go down in history. I’ve heard so many good words about him from other chefs he has been working with. I haven’t even got the words to say how proud I am of him. He is an incredibly selfless young man, a kind and generous soul. A lot of people his age would have viewed it as a three-month holiday but he has been working so hard. He is full of motivation and ridiculously talented, and he is going to go a long way in the industry. His name will be in lights without a doubt.”