The smell hits when you first enter, garlic and spices, then the sound of gossip and laughter as women prepare food and keep an eye on pots simmering on stoves.
Today in the Hubb Community Kitchen 300 meals are being prepared. The menu includes Egyptian lamb fattah, Persian chicken and barberry rice, harira soup and chocolate cake. Outside the kitchen in a dining-come-common room surfaces are strewn with fresh fruit and plates of treats: biscuits with nigella and sesame seeds, nutty date and ‘Bounty-style’ energy balls, tahini chocolate cookies with walnuts. The chefs are women who live nearby, brought together under the most dreadful circumstances, taking positive steps forward. They come from at least 15 countries – but represent just one city.
The kitchen is part of Al-Manaar, the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre. Not far away is Grenfell Tower, which still casts a shadow over the whole country. The fire that broke out on June 14 last year was a tragedy that devastated the community and exposed a national shame about the divisions in our society. Seventy-two lives were lost, hundreds more changed forever. The blackened remains are now screened by plastic sheeting; the top of the 24-storey block crowned with the message: Grenfell forever in our hearts.
Across London at Holborn Bars, the Grenfell inquiry’s push for justice is ongoing. Here inside the kitchen lives are being rebuilt and a community is healing.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the kitchen in Al-Manaar was used to cook meals for those who needed to be fed. It then opened its doors to women who no longer had kitchens of their own so that their families, relocated and staying in hotels, could still eat homemade meals. Survivors joined with volunteers at Al-Manaar, establishing the Hubb Community Kitchen – ‘Hubb’ meaning love in Arabic.
In January this year, Meghan Markle visited the women, tasted the food and has been a frequent visitor since. After learning that funding shortages meant the kitchen could only be open two days a week, she suggested the group create a cookbook to raise money. Published in September, Together: Our Community Cookbook collected more than 50 of the women’s own recipes and was an instant bestseller. In only a few weeks, 40,000 copies have been sold in the UK alone, raising £210,000 so far.
As a result, the kitchen is now open seven days a week and many of the women have been empowered to start their own food-related projects to benefit the area. This morning, despite having hundreds of lunches to prepare, the kitchen provided a breakfast of croissants, toast and cereal to homeless people. Today’s meals will be transported to a range of organisations including a hostel, a women’s refuge, Christian groups, Grenfell United campaigners and teachers at Colville Primary School, which was attended by many of the children who died in the fire.
Cooking pauses and a hush descends as the Duchess walks through the door. There are no formal introductions or awkward handshakes, Meghan is on first-name terms with everyone, hugging and kissing while asking about their children. She crosses the room to embrace Intlak Alsaiegh, who congratulates her on her pregnancy. “Thank you so much!” Meghan replies. “I wanted to tell you the last time I saw you.”
Another woman, Ahlam Saeid, helps her put on an apron (“Over the bump,” Meghan says) before she enters the gleaming kitchen, newly refurbished with proceeds from the book.
“Oh wow!” Meghan exclaims. “You should have seen this kitchen before, it’s such a transformation. Even that window, do you remember what it used to look like?”
Ahlam has a Master’s in chemistry but found it difficult to combine a career with family life when she moved from Iraq
She surveys the steaming pots and pans and peers in to see what’s bubbling inside. “I remember that, that’s delicious,” she says before offering to prepare vegetables, rolling up her sleeves and donning a pair of disposable gloves.
Ahlam is preparing her dish of rainbow roasted vegetables and gets Meghan to chop a courgette and beetroot. Ahlam has a Master’s in chemistry but found it difficult to combine a career with family life when she moved from Iraq. “Now the kitchen is my laboratory,” she says. “With the mixing, pouring and measuring, I feel like I am back in my own world.”
Joining them in the kitchen is Clare Smyth, the chef who catered Harry and Meghan’s wedding, a banquet that included wagyu beef and pork belly. Meghan shares the recent news about Clare’s restaurant Core: “Two Michelin stars – which is huge!”
But even one of the world’s best chefs can learn from the Hubb as Meghan and Clare, Ahlam and another kitchen member Munira Mahmud talk about food, the future and the impact of the book.
“It’s about the gathering,” Meghan says. “It’s great to try the recipes but that simple reminder of coming together. [The book] has already sold 30,000 copies in the US.” She turns to Munira. “Everyone loves your recipes,” she says, while mixing a large platter of the now-roasted vegetables by hand.
“Making 300 meals is quite a task,” says Clare. “That’s what I love, branching out,” adds Meghan. “It doesn’t just end here.”
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Roasted rainbow vegetables ready, Meghan removes her apron and moves to a table where portions of food are being scooped into foil containers as Aretha Franklin plays on a radio in the background. “That’s fantastic,” Meghan approves.
“So what is everybody getting in their packet?” she asks. “Can we put some labels on for you? It looks so pretty. So healthy as well.”
Sometimes changed a little bit here and there – I add a little twist to it
Across the hall, an open door reveals a kids’ Zumba class, although most of the exercises seem to be aimed at finding out the source of the scents of lamb, chicken and cake that are wafting across the corridor.
Taking a brief moment’s rest, I ask Munira about the lamb dish, which is one of her own recipes. “They’ve been passed down,” she says. “Sometimes changed a little bit here and there – I add a little twist to it.”
Has it been overwhelming cooking so many meals today? “This is nothing!” she says. “In Uganda, I grew up doing this. Food is an important part of the culture there. It is everywhere.”
Although she is too modest to take any credit, Munira is responsible for the Hubb Community Kitchen developing into what it has become. Her family lived on the fifth floor of Grenfell Tower. Her husband had lived there his whole life. Two months after the fire, the family in a hotel, Munira decided that she wanted to celebrate her ninth wedding anniversary with a feast of lamb. She asked the Al-Manaar Centre if she could use their kitchen. Word spread, friends joined in and the movement continues to grow.
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In September when the Together cookbook was published, we printed Munira’s recipe for vegetable samosas in the magazine. I tell her that feedback from Big Issue readers was amazing – people had tried her recipe and sent pictures to show us. Her eyes light up. “I’m over the moon,” she says.
The recipe reminds her of her friend Rania, who could eat 10 of the samosas in a sitting. A few weeks ago, Munira appeared at the Grenfell inquiry, remembering the night of the fire. After she and her family had escaped, she phoned Rania who was trapped on the 23rd floor. Munira begged that she try to get out but Rania followed the advice to stay inside and wait for rescue. Rania Ibrahim
died alongside her two daughters, Fethia aged four and Hania, three. The inquiry into the tragedy, opened in September last year, is ongoing.
Almost a year-and-a-half after the fire, Munira and her family are still living in a hotel. But she has good news, permanent accommodation has finally been secured. “Hopefully we will be moving in on December 5 – my daughter’s birthday,” she smiles.
This kitchen has played an important role through months of grief and uncertainty. “This place is my home,” Munira says. “In the morning I drop my son off at school, go shopping, come and cook, pick up my son and go back to the hotel. A home is a home no matter how big or small.”
Munira has big plans. She hopes to start a scheme that delivers fresh, nutritious food to mothers in maternity wards
The kitchen has had a makeover and its future is secure. The aims of the Together cookbook have been achieved earlier than anyone would have dared to dream, but this success has only cooked up more ambition. The women want to bring the rest of the community together as they have been brought together. Sharing these meals is just one of the ways they plan to do this.
Munira has big plans. She hopes to start a scheme that delivers fresh, nutritious food to mothers in maternity wards. And Leila Hedjem, who knew many people who lived in Grenfell Tower, is launching a ‘Thrive’ programme bringing women suffering domestic abuse to the kitchen.
“We’re going to do food, there will be clothing, toys for the children,” Leila says. “It will be a group where they can talk, share their experiences if they want to, make friends. It’s just somewhere to feel comfortable. When you share food you talk, you relax.”
Studying the kitchen’s schedule, Meghan is delighted about how it is going to be used now it is fully refurbished. “You could open but there were still some finishing touches to be made,” Meghan says. “Now everything’s ready for use.”
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Faiza Hayani plans to teach language classes. “I’ve been trying to get better with my French over the last year,” Meghan explains. Leila tells her about Thrive. “I’m so proud of you, you’ve been so excited about it for so long,” Meghan says. “When you break bread you make friends,” she adds. “It starts from one idea and from that one idea it spawns so much and what you end up doing inspires so many. It’s not even been a year yet, right? What you’ve achieved in that small amount of time is incredible. It’s really exciting.”
With the cooking complete, Meghan’s thoughts turn to her own kitchen. “I have to do the same,” she says, “It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow.” I wonder if it’s Harry or Meghan on turkey-stuffing duty.
More hugs and kisses and a promise to return soon. Munira hands her a bag and whispers in her ear. Her gestures indicate the gift relates to her pregnancy and they both break out in giggles.
With most of the food dispatched, there are just a few leftovers. Intlak insists it doesn’t go to waste. “Did you taste some food?” she asks. “Shall I get some for you? I can bring plates…” Portion after portion is ladled on to my plate. The Persian chicken has a delicious tangy, buttery flavour, while the rainbow roasted vegetables are given a warm but welcome kick via a sprinkling of chilli powder. The beetroot and courgette seem especially well sliced.
Some of the women huddle around smartphones, looking at pictures taken by the crush of photographers outside that are already shooting images of Meghan’s visit across social media.
Cooking for someone you love is what makes you a good cook
An instant internet dissection of her dress takes place, a few fashion commentators spotting Meghan’s “never-before-seen” ring. It only cost £54! they say. Some below-the-liners suggest it might be a well-meaning but sentimental gift from Harry she felt obliged to wear. Instead, the simple band spelling L-O-V-E in rose gold letters ties into the not-so-secret ingredient that permeates everything about the Hubb Community Kitchen.
“Cooking for someone you love is what makes you a good cook,” Aysha Bora says. Aysha used to hate cooking and after she got married was distraught about how much time she was expected to spend in the kitchen. “But then I saw the atmosphere at home with my in-laws,” she explains. “It was good food, good mood.”
The first time Aysha came to the kitchen at Al-Manaar was the morning after the fire. She and her sister wanted to help and joined volunteers making meals for victims, firemen and other first responders. It was the first time Aysha had ever cooked for anyone outside her family.
Then, like today, the kitchen cooked hundreds of meals but the circumstances could not be more different. The women have learned how food can bring people together, nourish the body, and they want to spread that message.
Aysha has some advice that will make all our food taste better this Christmas. “Make everything with love.”
Images: CHRIS JACKSON/AFP/Getty Images