Food can do more than fill bellies, it can provide the recipe for communities to come together to beat poverty and include some of the most marginalised in society. That’s the view of Cafe Van Gogh owner Steve Clarke.
Take a seat in his South London eatery – so-called because it is just around the corner from where Vincent van Gogh lodged in the 1870s – in the grounds of a church and it’s immediately clear that it is not your average spot for a quick bite.
The cafe offers a place of work for people with learning disabilities, mental health problems, special needs or for ex-offenders. All the profits are poured back into the business to cook up classes for struggling parents identified by LEAP (Lambeth Early Action Partnership) to beat food poverty, work with job coaches or workshops on gardening and more.
Originally from Denton in Manchester, Steve has never forgotten the community spirit he fostered up north before moving to London 24 years ago.
A sounding board for ideas and a shoulder to cry on.
“It creates community and that is something that I think is missing in London,” Steve, explains. “One of the plus points of all of this is that it would be nice if people can develop a few friendships. We’re trying to address social needs really. A bit of this is about being a Mancunian in London and recognising that it is different. I can see what’s missing in this city and I’m not able to solve that single-handedly – I wouldn’t even be able to make a drop in the ocean – but improving community relations is a good, quick and easy win I think.”
Perched in the corner of the cafe you can see Steve lending an ear to every problem, a sounding board for ideas and a shoulder to cry on.
After two decades working in the homelessness and housing sector, he decided to act on his dream of opening up a cafe three years ago with the help of a £20,000 loan from Big Issue Invest’s Impact Loans England programme, which is funded by Access – The Foundation for Social Investment, with finance provided by its partners Big Lottery Fund and Big Society Capital. The 45-year-old is full of praise for the BII team who have continued to offer advice and support. Since then, he has dreamed up recipes with inspiration from across the globe and put them to the test in the kitchen of his narrowboat home.
Steve then lets his chefs loose to add their own twist to the dishes.
“We’re all-vegan and we have a number of different chefs here. We change the menu seasonally and we’re zero-waste, with all our food waste composted,” says Steve. “As for the style of the food, it really does vary. It is influenced by some of the chefs we have in here.
“At the moment we have a chef from Brazil and a chef from Italy, a Polish chef and a chef with Jamaican heritage. It’s not quite every continent but it is pretty diverse.
“We try to stay as affordable as possible but all of our staff are on the London Living Wage too. The steepest part of the learning curve is the responsibility of making sure everything is paid. I’m not really a businessman.”
The community focus even extends down to ingredients with foraging for local plants – like nettles to make pesto – forming a small part of how Steve and Cafe Van Gogh create their dishes.
Other ingredients come from another unique source: the roof of a local school.
“One nice thing we do is work with a local school called Christ Church who have a growing project on the roof of their building and they grow us around two per cent,” says Steve. “The kids come in bringing loads of chard and flowers and stuff that really brightens our plates up. And we buy it off them – me and the kids barter to work out the correct price of stuff and it is good for their economic development and entrepreneurial skills.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“We also have a partnership with Highshore, a local special needs school, and they come in every Friday and learn about cleaning tables and customer service and talking to the customers. It is one of the best bits of the job. I love it.”
Young or old, Steve is trying to cook up inclusion for the people on his doorstep and beyond, and maybe a pinch of community spirit is needed in London’s mixing bowl.
Image: Image: Shendrew S Balendran