“It’s not like an anti-wealth thing, just the good stuff has to be for everybody.”
“It’s not fair otherwise,” explains Bury-born chef Mary-Ellen McTague as we sit chatting about her food inequality project, Eat Well MCR, outside her restaurant in Chorlton.
Launched just before the start of the first lockdown, over the past year and a half the project has rallied together chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants and seen over 50,000 meals delivered to vulnerable Mancs in need.
What first began as a meal service for NHS staff soon pivoted to focus on families living in temporary and emergency accommodation – of which there are thousands in Greater Manchester.
These families generally have nothing but a kettle and a microwave to cook with, she tells us, meaning that no matter how thrifty they are with their limited budget they’re pretty much stymied from the off.
Pot noodles, we hear, are a regular feature of many diets as a result.
“It’s really difficult to eat even remotely well even if you’re a really skilled cook and you’re very thrifty and you’re really creative,” explains McTague, hitting on one of the key arguments given by those who seek to lay blame at the door of the individual.
“Even if you can do alright on the budget, you’ve got you’ve got no means for cooking anyway you know so it’s just such a barrier to being able to eat well.”
A chef of twenty years’ experience, she’s well qualified to comment – having worked at some of the country’s top restaurants, cheffing for the likes of Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck and Lancashire restaurateur Paul Heathcote before going on to open her own restaurants, first Aumbry and then The Creameries.
She also appeared, not once but twice, on the BBC2 show Great British Menu – reaching the North West finals both years, before going on to write a food column for The Guardian.
Having seen both sides of the coin, she knows all too well that there is a huge disconnect between the experience of restaurant customers and homeless families attempting to manage on minimal benefits and charitable donations.
For such families living on the bread line, choice is a luxury they can literally not afford.
“There are all sorts of food deserts in and around Manchester and other cities where what’s available to buy locally is really limited,” explains McTague.
“To have the choice to eat organic vegetables if you want to, the choice to occasionally not to have to cook your own tea, these are all choices that we just totally take for granted but just aren’t part of lots of people’s lives.”
“I don’t really think twice about ordering a takeaway but you know loads of people just wouldn’t, couldn’t consider it,” she says, before telling us about a takeaway night they run in partnership with a local food bank where they link up with different restaurants to give service users the choice to order what they want.
“It’s a big event and people get dressed up for it,” she tells us.
“It might be Chinese or it might be pizza or it might be fish and chips, whatever it is it’s nice, good takeaway food and the families choose what they want to have and then they come in on the Wednesday and pick it up.”
Still, the plight of families is very much at the forefront of people’s minds right now – especially as many brace themselves for the removal of the weekly £20 Universal Credit uplift on 6 October and rising fuel prices that will lead swathes to have to make the choice between heating and eating this winter.
“I don’t know if you saw the Jack Munroe tweet the other day but she took a picture of what £20 worth of food looks like and it was just heartbreaking.”
“I mean, it’s like, you could feed your family for a few days – it’s like, for people making these decisions, £20 is just no big deal to them – they will never be in a situation where £20 makes the difference between eating and not eating.”
Going into winter, Mary-Ellen tells us that one of the key messages Eat Well wants to get out is that they need more restaurants to work with them to help meet the growing demand food nutritious, quality meals over the coming months.
“We want to grow. We need more people cooking for us […] we need more chefs and restaurants to get involved.
“We make it as easy as possible for people, we deliver the ingredients, we then collect the meals and we distribute them, we do all the difficult stuff, we just need people to give up a few hours and just like turn what we bring them into something nice and tasty.”.
“Like, that’s not nothing – it’s a lot out of kitchen’s are busy and it’s but if someone feels that they can manage ten meals once every three weeks great, we’ll work with that, if someone else thinks they can do fifty a week, perfect.
“It’s just about having lots and lots of people doing the little bit they can manage.”
A truly inspirational Mancunian chef, what Mary Ellen is doing with her partners at Eat Well MCR is making the world of healthy and nutritious, restaurant-grade meals available to everyone in Manchester – not just those with disposable income.
Even though she didn’t take home the Chef of the Year gong at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards this year, she’s certainly a winner in our eyes – having reimagined the role of restaurants and chefs in one of the most challenging years hospitality has ever had, and what’s more, reimagining it for the greater good of the city’s most vulnerable.
Anyone in the industry who may be able to help can contact Mary-Ellen through twitter, @MaryEllenMcT or reach out to Eat Well MCR via their Give Support page.
Feature image- Mary Ellen McTague
This hidden Manchester pasta and dumplings restaurant has just made the Michelin Guide
Michelin has just added some new additions to its guide, and one of our favourite Manchester restaurants has finally made the cut.
Loved by locals for its continental pasta and dumplings, gorgeous European wine list and sake collection, The Sparrows in the Green Quarter is something of a hidden gem – tucked in a disused railway arch on Red Bank.
It received rave reviews from local and national critics alike when it first opened in 2019 in a tiny space with room for just 12 covers. Since then, it’s relocated to a bigger home and its following has grown significantly.
After spending years wowing foodies in the know, the restaurant has made it onto the radar of Michelin’s inspectors at last – and we have to say, the accolade is well deserved indeed.
Front of house is headed up by Polish-born Kasia Hitchcock with her chef partner Franco Concli at the helm in the kitchen. Plates celebrate Franco’s Tyrolean heritage, with their signature dish spätzle, a rustic fresh egg pasta from which the restaurant takes its name, sitting front and centre.
Traditionally made by scraping dough from the wooden board straight into a pot of boiling water, these irregular-shaped delights translate from Swabian-German to mean “little sparrows.”
Served in multiples ways, they can be enjoyed either savoury or sweet – mixed with braised onions into a creamy gruyere and Emmental cheese sauce, as is traditional, or transformed into a pudding with a touch of cinnamon, brown sugar and butter.
Joining the now seventeen Manchester restaurants to be featured in the prestigious guide, its description reads as follows: “Nestled under the railway arches in Manchester’s Green Quarter is a restaurant whose name is (almost) the English translation of the word ‘spätzle’ – which gives some clue as to the style of food on offer here.
“The dumplings and assorted pasta dishes are all made in-house and include excellent pierogi. The focus on Eastern Europe carries through to the wine list, which has a leaning towards Polish wines.”
A welcome new addition, if you haven’t yet visited then we recommend you book in swiftly. No doubt the news of its conclusion in the Michelin Guide will send reservations filling up pretty sharpish.
Feature image – Google Maps
New DNA evidence could clear ‘innocent’ man who spent 17 years in prison for Salford rape
A man who spent 17 years in prison for a rape he has continued to claim he did not commit has now been granted a fresh appeal after DNA was linked to an alternative suspect.
57-year-old Andrew Malkinson from Grimsby was convicted by a jury verdict of 10-2 of strangling and raping a woman in Little Hulton in Salford back in 2003, and was jailed for life following a trial at Manchester Crown Court in February 2004.
The victim – who had been walking home alone in the early hours of 19 July 2003 – was sexually assaulted after being throttled until the point of unconsciousness, and also suffered a broken neck and a fractured cheekbone during the attack.
There was no DNA or other forensic evidence linking Mr Malkinson to the crime at the time, and the prosecution case relied mainly on identification evidence from eyewitnesses.
This is why he has always maintained his innocence and insisted it was a case of mistaken identity.
Mr Malkinson had twice been refused an appeal in the past after applying for his case to be reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) – which is the body responsible for investigating alleged miscarriages of justice – but after being released on license from prison back in 2020, scientific techniques have advanced, and this has potentially lead to some new evidence.
The legal team at the charity APPEAL was able to commission new DNA testing that revealed the presence of unknown male DNA in samples taken from the victim and her clothing, and this “breakthrough” has therefore cast doubt on Mr Malkinson’s conviction.
APPEAL Director Emily Bolton said “the battle for justice is not yet over”, adding that the CCRC “will now form its own view of the fresh evidence and we hope they will agree that Andy’s conviction cannot now be regarded as safe.”
Mr Malkinson says he “finally has the chance to prove his innocence”.
“I am innocent,” Mr Malkinson questioned in a statement provided by his legal representatives.
“Finally, I have the chance to prove it thanks to the perseverance of my legal team at APPEAL. I only have one life and so far 20 years of it has been stolen from me. Yesterday I turned 57 years old. How much longer will it take?”
As well as the case having being referred back to the CCRC this week, in light of new information, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) confirmed last month that it had arrested a 48-year-old man from Exeter on suspicion of rape, but he has since been released under investigation.
Addressing Mr Malkinson’s case, CCRC chairwoman Helen Pitcher said: “The new results raise concerns about the safety of these serious convictions.
“It is now for the Court of Appeal to decide whether they should be quashed.
“New evidence can come to light years after a conviction, and in the ever-changing world of forensic science, it is crucial an independent body can undertake these enquiries and send cases of concern back to court.
“Following Mr Malkinson’s application, we used our special powers and expertise to re-examine this case, instructing experts to undertake state-of-the-art DNA testing.”