Culinary hero has cooked thousands of meals for needy during pandemic
An award-winning Dungannon chef has cooked thousands of free meals for vulnerable people since the beginning of the pandemic, including around 40 Christmas dinners for families in his home town.
Using excess restaurant food, James Devine began producing meals for charities and food banks around Belfast when the first lockdown began.
And the former Masterchef Professionals quarter-finalist teamed up with local social enterprise For You to provide people in need with the best meals possible for Christmas Day.
“It started off because restaurants were shut quite abruptly, there was a lot of surplus food left, the freezers were full. Lockdown lasted a bit longer… and there was surplus food from other sources and suppliers,” James explained.
Currently head chef at No.47 in Cookstown, he said once lockdown ended and hospitality businesses “went back to normal”, it was harder to find the time to cook and distribute as many free meals, but he wanted to make a special effort for Christmas.
No.47 owner Rachel Molloy donated food and the use of the restaurant’s kitchen.
La Rousse Foods donated vegetables to the cause, and James’s parents not only provided the potatoes, but also peeled them.
Glena McDowell-Khan, manager of For You and its partner charity shop Me You, said: “James is just amazing. He has helped us keep our most vulnerable safe over a period of time.”
According to a recent study by her organisation, a quarter of children in Dungannon are living in poverty.
As well as food drives and cooking initiatives, For You runs toy and gift appeals at Christmas, and is in contact with local fuel suppliers to help provide heating for families who need it.
James said what Glena does in the community is “the hard part”.
“She’s boots on the ground, and I’m literally boots in the kitchen. From my point of view, I just cook a bit of food, which is what I do anyway,” he added.
James, who was crowned National Chef of the Year in 2017, paid tribute to his fiancée and a friend who helped package all the food up on Christmas Eve, working until 10pm.
“We tried to make it nice. There was a four-course dinner — vegetable soup with bread; smoked salmon salad; a full turkey dinner, and then a dessert of apple crumble, custard, some fruit and ice cream.
“If you’re going to try and help people you want it to be nutritious, so we tried to have as much fresh fruit and vegetables.
“I’ve had a very fortunate upbringing in that I’ve never really been hungry in my life. Christmas is meant to be about helping people and stuff, so it was just nice to do it.
“I don’t really see it as much of an effort on my part. If it’s something I can do to help Glena help the community, it’s something I’d like to do year on year and build on it.”
The Department for Communities revealed that in 2019/20, one in 10 children here was living in a “food insecure” household, meaning they had lack of access or risk of lack of access to sufficient, varied and healthy food.
Research by safefood and the Food Standards Agency shows low-income families also now need to spend almost half (46%) of their weekly income to afford a healthy food basket that meets basic nutritional needs.
“The more you hear, the more you open your eyes as to how big the problem is,” James said.
He plans to open his own restaurant in Dungannon, and has bought the premises of the former McGrath’s bar in Irish Street.
The ex-Great British Menu contestant is still waiting on planning permission, which has slowed down due to the pandemic, but confirmed it will be called Mo Ghrá — both in homage to the name of the popular local pub it once was, and also because it means ‘My Love’ in Irish, reflecting his passion for cooking and the area.
“I do want stuff like this to be paramount to that business ethos of giving back and constantly helping,” he explained.
“It’s more than a business. I think you do have to help your community.
“But during lockdown I just thought: ‘Don’t wait until you start your own business to do this, start now and it’ll come full circle. You’ll make it better as you develop more ties with the area as well’.”