• Stephanie Drax

Heroine: Cooking (for free) for the COVID-19 vulnerable

There’s an angel on my doorstep. Ayesha Pakravan Ovey lives in the complex where I live - a converted school in Battersea, now houses and flats. It’s a community that’s become closer in recent weeks, whether it’s clapping (or klaxoning!) for the NHS, or support for those who’ve been holed up here with the virus. Ayesha’s incredible contribution to the fight against the effects of coronavirus has had her featured on BBC News, ITV News, the Telegraph and the Daily Mirror. From the small kitchen of her house, she is cooking free meals for the most vulnerable people across London.

Ayesha, just 26 years old, launched her catering company late last year after her love of cooking - and a Leith’s cookery course - gave her the confidence to trade in her career as an estate agent. Her business, The Plattery, hit the ground running with stunning flower-filled Grazing Tables, Picnics and Platter boxes for the likes of London Fashion Week, Facebook and Virgin among the more regular work of birthdays, weddings and events. March 2020 was set to be her busiest month - and so it has been, but not in the way she imagined…

What compelled you to start feeding people for free?

When I realised people were probably struggling to get food because of panic buying, I thought, ‘I can help’. My kitchen at home is registered with the council, so it was easy for me to repurpose it. I had flour and stock for the events I was about to do; Sheringham’s deliver my fruit and veg, so it was easier for me than someone relying on the supermarkets. I was ready to go. I knew I was going to be bored, otherwise, with nothing to do. I grew up in a Middle Eastern family – I’m half Iranian, half English – and the culture involves cooking for a lot of people!

How did you find the people who needed it most?

I posted on Facebook, mutual aid groups and covid19 community boards saying that I was happy to provide free meals. I was inundated with requests. An NHS worker contacted me about a man who hadn’t eaten anything in four days. I was quickly passed on to support and care workers for people who needed help, for example, a man who was my age who hadn’t eaten a cooked meal in two weeks. I’m now delivering about 150 meals a week.

Ayesha's Vital Meals - free food for the vulnerable

What dishes do you cook?

The food varies as it depends on what I can get my hands on. A lentil and aubergine dhal, a veggie pasta bake or perhaps chilli con carne with rice. Today I’m going to Croydon to seven clients who were homeless and have been put into accommodation, so I’m taking wholesome filling food – a sausage casserole - to get them through. I’m not trying to be elaborate or ‘cheffy’ - I want people to get food that they want to eat.

How often do you deliver?

I take six meals that they can freeze – effectively food for a week. But if I can take more, I will. For the man who hadn’t eaten in four days, I took ten meals. Then I restock and go back the following week. It allows for solutions to be found - I delivered to one man three weeks in a row, and now he’s sorted with food packages.

Are some of your clients quarantined with coronavirus?

I don’t ask people why they need me, but I would imagine that probably some have been. I put the boxed food on the floor two metres away, and I stand back, with gloves on. I imagined I would be helping only elderly people, but it’s the young too, families with children or NHS staff working relentlessly the front line. I don’t have criteria before I deliver. It’s a trusting assumption that they need the food. Whatever their reasons are, it’s personal to them.

The Plattery: Ayesha's elaborate buffets

How have you funded the meals?

I put £300 of my own money into it, and £400 from The Plattery’s February profits. Each week I spend £200 on food and £100 on compostable containers. When the money ran out two weeks ago, I set up a GoFundMe page. It’s raised £7,500 already, so I can continue as long as these meals are needed. I don’t need to make money right now – my boyfriend and I aren’t going out and spending money – and I’m lucky that it’s just me in my business. I can move and groove with the times a bit.

What’s next?

I’ve renamed the business Vital Meals, and I’d like to incorporate helping people into my future business. Maybe buy a meal, give a meal – we’ll see. But for now, people have been offering to help with deliveries. So far, it’s been me in my trusty (and very faulty!) car and a volunteer delivering in North London. I’ve taken on three other chefs who are generously giving up their time to support the cause. What I need to do is put a proper structure in place to organise all the willing volunteers so that it’s not chaos!

To donate to Ayesha’s GoFundMe page, click here. If anyone knows of any compostable container companies willing to donate containers, please get in touch with Ayesha at hello@theplattery.com