Once head chef at Harvey Nichols in Leeds, Richard Allen tells Joan Ransley why he is now happiest down on an allotment helping people with learning difficulties to blossom.
It’s lunchtime and I am tucking into a plate of freshly cooked courgette fritters accompanied by a delicious salad of just picked heritage tomatoes and diced cucumber. It has been prepared for me by chef Richard Allen and trainee Rupert Spode, a 26-year-old with learning disabilities. The pair have used produce grown in the nursery, at the Northcliffe Environmental Enterprises Team (Neet), Shipley, less than three miles from the centre of Bradford.
Neet is a charity devoted to helping people with learning disabilities lead a healthy and more inclusive life. Their five-acre plot is surrounded by 121 allotments at the Northcliffe Allotments, land which was bequeathed to Bradford Council by Sir Norman Rae, the late 19th century philanthropist who made his fortune in the wool trade and represented Shipley as an MP. He was the largest benefactor to Shipley since the great Sir Titus Salt.
Those familiar with the Leeds food scene will know star chef Richard Allen from the 12 years he spent as head chef at Harvey Nichols, Leeds, and then the restaurant Create, a social enterprise, much fêted by restaurant critics and even politicians, including David Cameron.
“I love working with food and people and Neet really connects the different work I do. At Create I worked with a team of people in hard to reach social situations such as homelessness and drug and alcohol misuse. Food binds people together across different cultures and classes. I think I have empathy for people and this kind of work,” says Richard.
He has his own allotment at the Northcliffe site and became involved as a volunteer 10 years ago. “I was still working as head chef at Harvey Nichols and I volunteered to help with a barbecue at Neet, which has since become an annual event. I would bring some chefs up from Harvey Nichols and we would cook a big open day barbecue for up to 160 people. It was great fun. Over the years I have become more involved with the work they do and now work three days a week at Neet and fit my freelance work around this.”
Forty-seven people, aged between 16 and 65, with learning disabilities come to work at Neet for anything from a few hours to five days a week and the range of activities they get involved in is impressive.
“All our activities stem from horticulture,” says Suzanne Longley, one of the founding members of Neet. “We run a thriving garden nursery business. We grow and sell plants and the products we make to members of the public and other outlets. All the people who come here have helped to build everything you see on the site today. Everything we do is about developing positive outcomes for people with learning disabilities. Through these experiences they develop practical skills, learn about working as a team, develop relationships and feel they are contributing to society – everyone is valued as part of an active vibrant community.”
As well as growing plants, there is an onsite cafe which sells light refreshments made by Richard and his kitchen team. Richard’s main role at Neet is to help people to learn to cook and eat well. There is a good-sized, well-equipped kitchen which Richard uses to work with students like Rupert Spode who is keen to be a chef.
“We want everyone to enjoy cooking and learn from what they do. It is a seed to table programme from sowing seeds to tending, harvesting and cooking the produce.”
Richard’s approach to teaching is innovative.
“We had a group whose eating habits were not good as they could be so we deconstructed fast foods, such as instant noodles, and we all worked out how to make a quick, more nutritious version that could be made at home.
“We did the same with pizza. We made all the toppings from produce grown here, with a little bit of cheese. We then said ‘how about you try that? The great thing was they liked it. We then went on to make an outdoor pizza oven with them.”
I walk around the site with Suzanne and meet Karl Scott and the woodwork team who are busy using waste wood from Uriah Woodhead & Son, the Bradford-based builders’ merchants, to make garden planters and bird feeders to sell in the shop. The woodwork team do all the woodwork on site as well as taking on renovation projects like turning beautiful old garden bench ends into new seats.
We walk passed an old wheelbarrow planted up with multi-coloured zinnia, white geraniums, bright yellow Bidens ferulifolia and the stunning, trailing, purple fairy fan flower, Scaevola aemula.
“This was an old dilapidated wheelbarrow that was given to us by a window cleaner and we completely refurbished it so that it could be planted up” Suzanne tells me.
Next we enter a warm, bright polytunnel, one of several professional growing areas at Neet. Tall, cheerful sunflowers tower over us as Suzanne reminisces about how far she and co-founder Ian Sutcliffe have taken the project.
“We have come a long way from where we first started in 1991, when I was a volunteer working at the Shipley Day Centre. I had a forward-thinking supportive manager who was looking to do something different to support and engage people with learning disabilities. The opportunity to have a big chunk of land came up at Northcliffe Allotments and we jumped at it. It was completely overgrown. At first we started with a wheelbarrow and a few tools to reclaim the land. We walked up each day from the day centre in Shipley with a packed lunch.
“In 2005 we were given a legacy of about £150,000 which meant we could develop the infrastructure and create the sustainable business you see today.”
Neet is part of the wider Bradford community and takes part in large events like Easier Access which celebrates the achievements of people with disabilities living in Bradford and is being held in Bradford City Park on Tuesday.
“It is really positive event where people come together to celebrate their achievements and we are delighted to be involved in it,” adds Suzanne, who along with her team regularly wins prizes at the West Yorkshire Organic Group fruit, flower and vegetable and produce show in September as part of Saltaire Festival.
“Rupert Spode has just won a trophy for his magnificent potato and sage loaf and was delighted. For the last four years we have entered Yorkshire in Bloom. In 2016 we were awarded a gold award and the prestigious Chairman’s Award, which we were delighted with and we are hoping to do well again this year.”
The Northcliffe Environmental Enterprises Team shop is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, and Saturday mornings between May and June. Neet’s nursery can be found at Cliffewood Avenue, Shipley, Bradford, BD18 3DD. northcliffepeopleandplants.co.uk