In this time-poor culture, where people work harder to afford to live, food easily takes a back seat. How often do we come home from work to shove something in the microwave and eat it in front of the telly? The recent pandemic raises lots of questions about how we share and enjoy food. Has the lockdown prompted our society to find new ways to share and connect with one another, or will significant job losses mean that people struggle to find food more than ever? He might not have the answers, but award-winning baker Tom Herbert is determined to be part of the solution.
Tom Herbert grew up above the family bakery in Chipping Sodbury. He went to study baking in Bristol with an ambition to “do for bread what Rick Stein has done for fish” and won young Baker of the Year in 1996. After that he married and opened a Hobbs house bakery in Nailsworth as part of the family business. He began teaching people to bake and enjoyed it so much that he continued to teach for ten years. By this time, he had attracted the attention of the BBC before being given his own show on Channel 4 in 2012. Tom co-presented the fabulous Baker Brothers with his brother Henry. The programme moved over to the Discovery Channel and because of its popularity in Southeast Asia, Tom did a lot of travelling abroad. Through this, he became an ambassador for Tearfund and taught teenagers to bake so they could set up microbusinesses and escape their lives of trafficking. In 2016, Tom left the family business and took himself off to bake in a refugee kitchen in Calais. He wrote a recipe book and did other odd jobs before volunteering at the Grace network in Stroud.
“In these drafty, cold warehouses I found something that was truly life giving,” he explains. “The up-for-it, risk-averse nature of people who are connected with meeting a need. I found it liberating, thrilling and really hard work but good work – the kind of work that makes me sleep like a baby.”
This is where Tom’s idea for the Long Table was born.
He starts our conversation by apologising for his lateness.
“I was in a meeting about transforming our warehouse in Stroud,” he explains. “We’re looking at inviting the first customers back into the space after lockdown.”
I ask if there will be a long table at the centre of this and he assures me that there is indeed a place for people to sit and eat together.
“But it will just be for takeaways to start with,” Tom tells me. “We’ve been making curries every week since our first successful curry evening. We had 250 people coming in at a time before the lockdown. Now we’re having to rebuild and look at how and when we can get back round the table.”
I ask him about the name – where did it come from?
“It was when there was all this talk of building a wall along the Mexican border to keep people out,” he says. “I tweeted ‘we should build longer tables, not higher walls’ and it got shared a lot! It stuck with me, this idea of society connecting around food.” Tom clearly loves food and people in equal measure. He gets excited about gatherings where everyone brings something to the table. “It means we can feed a lot of people. That’s got an amazing feeling to it,” he says. “It makes less of me as a cook, as in there’s less of an ego. Even if people just help with the washing up, they are contributing in their own way.”
I was curious to know about the type of meals the Long Table serves. They cook with people’s dietary requirements in mind, making casseroles, stew, curries, and pasta dishes. I ask Tom if customers choose the dishes they want to eat. He tells me that one of the reasons they don’t give people a choice is to make the best of using surplus food. The Long Table prides itself on serving a wide variety of fresh, seasonal ingredients.
So, what’s Tom’s signature dish?
“Good question,” he laughs. “It’s like Ready, Steady Cook when I get going! There’s nothing left! I’m a baker by trade so probably pizza.”
The impact of the pandemic has been significant for the Long Table. When people found it difficult to access the food they needed, Tom and his team recognised that they couldn’t provide a space for people to sit and eat together as they had before. Instead, they rose to the challenge by reaching out to chefs and venues across the county to cook up and host their efforts. Tom and his team used 7 kitchens in different parts of the county to make, freeze and deliver over 40,000 meals to the people of Gloucestershire. “People liked it that they could buy 7 ready meals for £25,” Tom says. “We couldn’t have done it without the volunteer drivers that came forward.” This isn’t the only change Tom and his team have adapted to. He explains that pre-lockdown, people would bring their own tubs to take their food home, which made for an environmentally friendly business. The pandemic meant delivering their ready meals in biodegradable containers and now they are seeking to find ways for customers to bring their own tubs once more, and even bring pots and pans so food can be reheated at home.
In these uncertain times, it would be easy for a cook to feel downtrodden. Tom is keen to emphasise some of the great things that have come out of this period. As well as the extensive media coverage he experienced during the lockdown, including a feature on Zoe Ball’s Breakfast Show on Radio 2, and on the One show. Tom tells me about two young people who volunteered to bake bread and cakes in the lockdown. He was happy to help and returned to work after three weeks’ furlough to find that these incredible young people had raised over £1,000.00, enabling the Long Table to run a teenage kitchen over the summer.
“This lockdown has really allowed us to be ourselves as it’s shown us where the need is,” says Tom. “I feel really excited about what’s next.”