Word of Mouth: The chef who ditched De Niro to work with the unemployed

A

s if setting up a restaurant from

scratch with a skeleton staff

and a tight budget weren't enough of a challenge, llegra McEvedy is willingly making her life as a chef even harder. t 27, she is running the Good Cook, the catering business at the Tabernacle arts centre in Notting Hill, London, and her mission is not just to produce impressive modish food - absolutely no quiche and carrot cake - but to set up a training programme to pass on skills to unemployed local people while she's doing it. lready this role of caterer with a conscience has earned her a place in Harpers & Queen's guide to the New Establishment, alongside Sir Terence Conran and her former employers at the River Cafe.

Such approval comes more for social success than awareness, but the Good Cook's altruism contrasts with llegra's last job as senior sous chef at Robert De Niro's TriBeCa Grill in New York. "The food was so overpriced. fter that, I wanted to do something I believed in. This is a community centre, and it's the perfect place to make good food available to everyone, whether you're rich or poor." Every day there's a two-course lunch for pounds 4; otherwise, the better-off citizens of the trendy Portobello Road area can pay pounds 4 for a starter such as red onion, ricotta, pine nut and tomato tart, or pounds 6.50 for a stuffed pork chop with mascapone sauce for lunch or dinner. "Even if you only have soup, it'll be fresh and well made for pounds 2.35," she insists. "We get a pretty diverse mix of people. Builders come in for our famous breakfast, but this is a proper restaurant as well as a cafe" - she had just been told there is to be a reception for Vivienne Westwood and 750 guests at the Tabernacle at the weekend, and about 4,000 canapes to be made.

doctor's daughter with a Cordon Bleu certificate, she may not have graduated from the school of hard knocks, but can hold her own in the kitchen with those who have. "t TriBeCa, four of us did 600 covers on Saturday nights. The three others were Hispanic men over 40; they didn't love having me as their boss." She'd like to see different working practices in kitchens. Who performs well if they're shouted at and paid peanuts? "I want to try to make sure chefs are treated fairly."

By giving her three novices a basic training, llegra's hoping to break the cycle that bedevils the unskilled: can't get a job without experience, can't get experience if you need to earn while you learn. One trainee is a single mother, another a former security guard, the third a local man of 31 who can't read or write. "I work with each of them in a flexible way, showing them the ropes as I go along." She may have experience in restaurant kitchens, but none, she admits, of teaching. "I have to dip into buckets of patience I didn't know I had, but when they make a ricotta tart by themselves it gives them and me a real buzz."

lthough it's a labour of love as well as a restaurant, llegra expects the Good Cook to be judged on its merits, whatever the principles at work behind the scenes. Caroline Stacey

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