South Yorkshire’s food heroes: the Rotherham food evangelists

When a Rotherham mum rebelled against Jamie Oliver’s healthy school meals campaign by feeding chips, burgers and pizzas through the Rawmarsh school gates at lunchtime, she incurred the wrath of the TV chef.  He and his production team descended on the town and declared it the headquarters of Jamie’s Pass It On campaign.  Rotherham, he decided, would prove his theory that if people were taught a handful of simple dishes, they could then share their knowledge with friends, family – and more importantly, their children; improving their health, giving them a social skill that would last for life, and breaking the downward spiral of food ignorance and obesity.

So, targeting those who stubbornly couldn’t or wouldn’t cook, Jamie’s production team scoured the streets of Rotherham looking for likely candidates.  They found them in the shape of 23 year old bricklayer Matthew Borrington and minor Mick Trueman, 57.  Matthew – who lived on microwave meals and the occasional dinner at his mum’s – was convinced to sign up for a personal cookery lesson with Jamie Oliver after the production team promised him it would help him get a girlfriend.  Mick’s fate was sealed by his wife, who took a call from the production team following a tip-off from his colleagues at the mine – and despite his protestations that ‘cooking was for girls,’ she firmly told him that he would be going along.

The pair joined 60 other carefully selected men from around Rotherham and turned up to the town’s football ground to learn their fate.  Jamie explained he would show two of them how to cook a simple meal – chicken stuffed with parmesan cheese and wrapped in prosciutto, served with asparagus – and then each man would have to show two others.  In turn, each of the two would have to show four others, and so on, until all the men had the knowledge and skill to cook at least one meal under their belt.

To his surprise, Mick’s was the first name out of the hat.  “I had to go onto the pitch, Jamie introduced himself and told me he was going to show me how to cook.  I watched him and was amazed at how simple it seemed.  And, surprisingly, I had no trouble at all making it myself and showing the next two blokes – if I’m honest, mine tasted better than his!”

Next up was Matthew, who had to follow the instructions and then pass them on to four other men.  “The most nerve-racking thing was getting up in front of those four men and showing them how to cook, when I’d never done it before,” he says.  “Just being able to cook a piece of chicken would have been an achievement, but learning how such a simple thing like adding some parmesan cheese and prosciutto ham made such a difference to that piece of chicken, and then being able to pass that on to other people – I was amazed and very proud of myself.”

But despite their pride in their achievements, the men left the ground with no thoughts on ever lifting up a pan again.  But a few days later the men were called and asked if they’d like to take regular cookery lessons from Jamie Oliver at Rawmarsh school in Rotherham, with the only stipulation being that they then went away and passed on the meal they’d made to as many people as possible.  With the taste of the success of their first meal fresh in their minds, the men signed up.

Ten cookery lessons later, their opinions of food and cooking had been transformed.  Mick – who had never made a piece of toast or opened a can of soup in his life, “my mother cooked for me at home and my wife took up where she left off as soon as I was married – why would I need to?”; and Matthew, who had never learnt how to do more than press the start button on a microwave – were firm converts to the cause.   So much so, that while the others in the group were happy to pass their knowledge on the friends and family, keeping Jamie’s Pass It On campaign going, Mick and Matthew took it further and began to run their own cookery classes at the Ministry of Food in Rotherham.

Matthew explains: “I loved the fact that I could invite people over and cook them a proper meal, then show them how it was done.  I had friends at university or in shared houses, so they were eating loads of convenience food, but I showed them what to do and they went away and did it themselves, and have all kept it up.  So when one of Jamie Oliver’s team asked me if I’d be interested in giving my own cookery classes at the Ministry of Food I jumped at the chance, and we started weekly class where people would come in and watch me prepare and cook the meal, then do it themselves.  It was such a good feeling to know that I was actually contributing to getting people cooking, and them telling me how brilliant it was for them.”

Mick agrees.  “I couldn’t believe the feeling I had of learning to cook, and I wanted other people to experience that feeling,” he says.  “Only a complete and utter novice could pass that feeling on to another novice.  The power of food is amazing, and when you’re sitting in front of 10 year old children and showing them how to cook pasta and peas and you see their faces – well, it’s just indescribable.  Wonderful.”

As well as teaching classes at the Ministry of Food, Mick and Matthew did regular Pass it On sessions in schools, universities and workplaces around Yorkshire.

“What’s amazing is when you go to these schools or universities, you always get someone who says they don’t like peas or chicken or parma ham,” says Mick. “But once you’ve done it and they’ve tasted it, they’re amazed and want more.  There are 15 million Mick the Miners out there who can’t cook, won’t cook, but once they’ve had a taste of it they’ll do exactly as I have.”

Matthew’s experience with children and young people was similarly enlightening.  “A major achievement for me was doing a huge ‘pass it on’ at Wales High School,” he says. “We only did pancakes, but if you imagine a group of 16 or 17 year olds who’d never used a cooker, suddenly realising that they could create something tasty themselves from scratch – it was enough to just start them off and get them thinking.  Every week, they passed it on amongst themselves and in the end 150 students had learned how to cook pancakes in just six weeks – that’s amazing.  For me to start that off is just such an achievement, and who knows how many people they, and the blokes from the cookery class, have passed it onto since?  I started that, yet a couple of years ago if you asked me to make beans on toast I wouldn’t have known where to start!”

Since taking part in Jamie Oliver’s Pass it On campaign, Mick and Matthew have passed their skills on to more than 2000 people between them, and eating well is now a way of life.

“I don’t just feel much fitter and healthier, but I’ve realised how much cheaper it is to cook things yourself,” says Matthew.  “You get so much more for your money if you buy fresh ingredients that will make a big batch of pasta, or curry, or stir fries.  I used to buy all those things in a box and put them in the microwave, and aside from the extra cost, I really had no idea what I was eating!  I know exactly what I’m eating now because it’s all done from scratch.”

Mick agrees.  “Having gone from never setting foot in a supermarket, I now love it”, he says.  “I’m very particular about ingredients, because the difference in taste if you take time to find the right things is like a smack in the mouth!  And the beauty of it is, you can make these things in 10 minutes, quicker than the time it’d take to phone a takeaway.  You don’t have to spend a fortune, you can make a fish pie, for example, with haddock and salmon and prawns, and it works out at £2 per portion.  There’s absolutely no truth in the rumour that you can’t afford to eat healthily – you really can’t afford not to.”

As for the women in their lives, Mick’s wife is thrilled with his new passion for food.  “The kitchen used to be her domain, now she can’t get me out of it,” he laughs.  “She thought she’d won the lottery at first, but now she’s used to it.  My sons Jamie and Bradley love it too – they’re both dab hands in the kitchen now, and that’s a skill they’ll keep for life.

As for Matthew, his confidence at cooking ensured he found the girl of his dreams.   “Yes, it did work!” he laughs.  “When we met I couldn’t wait to cook for her, and she was really impressed.  At first, she was quite happy to leave me to it as she had no interest in cooking but then she gradually became more involved, and now she often throws me out of the kitchen!

So what’s next for the Rotherham food evangelists?

Mick has continued to spread the word as far as possible, spending time with Jamie Oliver on his farm to learn more new skills, and appearing on TV as far afield as Norway to spread the message internationally and even hosting cooking seminars at Birmingham NEC.  But closer to home, he’s been swapping recipes with his colleagues who, he says, can often be found deep underground sharing recipes.  “I work underground in one of the hardest jobs going, but there’s many a time we’ve been sat down on a tea break with six or seven of us swapping recipes.  I have been known to be washing a bloke’s back in the showers at the end of a shift giving him step by step instructions on how to make a banana tarte tartin!

For Matthew, ensuring that he continues to share the joy of cooking is a priority.  “Passing these skills on has been incredibly important to me, and I’ll do it for as long as is necessary,” he says.  “I’ve taught people in their fifties, sixties and seventies to cook their first ever meal, and it’s such an amazing feeling to know that I’ve played a part in getting the nation interested in food again.  It’s so important that people get into the habit of learning to cook, especially if they’re my age and are just out of university or setting up home.  And it’s never too late to start – just go and buy a cook book or sign up to a class.  It really will change your life.”