The UK’s first vegan cooking school had to overcome some prejudices when it launched. Almost a decade later, he has become a pillar of the community. Founder Sarah Bentley Describes the ‘Beautiful Magic’ That Happens When Plant-Based Food, Cultivation and Conversation Collide
What does Made in Hackney do and how important are cooking classes in this context?
âWe started with them and they are the heart of our organization. Our goal is to inspire people to grow, cook and eat more plants so that they can eat food that is good for themselves and the planet, in a way that brings communities together.
Since we started in September 2012, we’ve given over 5,000 classes across the capital, to over 20,000 people, which is pretty crazy.
Give us an idea of ââthe variety of cooking classes you offer, and the chefs who run them
âWe try to make the courses as different, international and cultural as possible. We currently offer dishes like Ethiopian, West African, Thai and Mexican cuisine, and we also focus on basic skills, such as bread making, vegan baking and fermentation. Fermentation is very popular because sauerkraut and kimchi can be pricey but are quick to do if you know how. All you need is cabbage, salt, elbow grease, and a little patience.
Most courses are available for free, but we have a paid, in-person, online masterclass program. The money collected during these courses goes back to the community courses.
We have amazing teachers, from two London-born Rastafarian chefs – Ekowa Boothe and Christopher Manahan – and Kieumy Pham Thai, specializing in South East Asian cuisine; to a fantastic West African cooking teacher, Duchess Nena [Nena Ubani]. We are very proud to work with all of them.
Why is Made in Hackney herbal?
âWhen we launched, being 100% vegetal was radical. It was quite difficult to get people to overcome their prejudices. But it just got a lot easier. To get people through the door, we just said, “Do you want to learn how to prepare delicious, healthy and nutritious foods that are good for people and the planet?” And people usually replied, “I’m in it!” “
Over the years we’ve had all the reactions to vegan food, from people thinking it’s going to be tasteless to those saying it’s not part of their culture. We worked with a bunch of Irish ladies and they constantly said, ‘Wouldn’t that be great with a little cheese and sausage on top? ” And it’s good ! We have a lot of jokes. We never lecture or judge people for what they are eating now.
We meet people where they are, with humor. Because food is emotional and food is personal. It’s part of your heritage, of your culture. No one should be telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat. But we provide a place to try new favors, new dishes, and we start a culinary conversation.
âWhen we first launched, being 100% herbal was radical,â says Bentley. Image: Jo Sonn
What impact have the cooking classes had?
âWe have had so many great experiences with people who have truly changed their lives. A mother came with her daughter, who suffered from a chronic bowel disease so severe that she prevented her from going to school. They came to two of our family cooking classes and then had private nutrition lessons with one of our teachers. She dramatically improved her symptoms, which had plagued her life for about five years, and was able to go back to school and even started ice skating.
Another guy first learned to cook at the age of 82 when his wife died, which was really emotional. During Covid, we had a lot of people who said that without our online courses they would have slipped into a huge depression – it was such a lifeline for their mental health to have something to look forward to every week, from connect with people and eat right foods. “
In general, why is it so important to teach people how to cook?
âSo many good things happen when people learn to cook. It can be a first step towards self-care when people start to take an interest in their meals and take the time to cook for themselves. It can mean that all of a sudden the very limited budget that people have for shopping increases as they can use really cheap ingredients like lentils and whole grains which might have been a bit confusing before.
It’s a way to connect with your family: you and your kids, for example, experience the joy of cooking together. It can connect you to your heritage and your roots – it can be a taste of home.
âWe have had so many fantastic experiences with people who have changed their lives,â says Bentley. Image: Serena Brown
In a classroom, there may be an architect, a general practitioner, someone recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder who lives in a hostel, someone recovering from a drug addiction, or to alcohol, a few moms from the local muslim cultural center and someone who is visually impaired or can’t hear. Very nice connections are made – all kinds of magic – that might not happen otherwise. “
How do your classes go beyond food alone?
âBecause our food is 100% plant-based, that opens up quite a conversation. We’re talking about the planet, food systems, food justice, waste, capitalism, composting: you name it.
Truly deep conversations take place in our classes, with people from all over the world offering their unique input and experience.
Just having the opportunity to talk about these things can really change people in terms of political thought and worldview. And that goes for teachers too, certainly for me. For all of you gathered there is so much learning when you can talk about food this way, together.
Made in Hackney currently manages crowdfunding to provide meals to those in need and ensure that no one in the community goes hungry in 2022. To learn more, click here.
Main picture: Serena Brown