Meet Our Members: Jack Fleming

Our regular Meet Our Members spot introduces you to the brilliant and creative people that have taken up residence here at This Time Next Year.

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Name

Jack Fleming

Company

Soop Stories – Stories On Our Plate

How do you take your tea or coffee?

Good solid builder’s tea, splash of milk, strong brew, no sugar.

What’s your favourite Waltham Forest Hangout?

I live and grew up in Snaresbrook, so I know Waltham Forest relatively well and seeing the area grow over the years is a joy. I absolutely love the Hornbeam café in Walthamstow, they do some work that is similar to ours, and of course, Deeney’s down the road for the Haggis toasties.

Tell us how SOOP came about

I’m one of two directors of Stories on Our Plate, we started nearly three years ago building on the foundation of celebrating people’s culinary identity through food. We primarily train home cooks to run their own pop up restaurants around London. We began life as a monthly supper club series which was all about celebrating the home cook, their food, their influences, their narration and helping them share that with paying customers. We take cooks through a mentoring programme over two or three months leading up to a collaboration and offer varying support around tasting, practising and storytelling. It’s all about trying to get out of them what they want to share with people, having them think about what they want their diners to leave the room having experienced. For example, an Egyptian cook we recently worked with is challenging the stereotype of middle eastern cuisine as a region and showcase the difference of Egyptian cuisine to neighbouring countries. She wanted to engage with the Egyptian diaspora that had not been back to their home towns and may have forgotten how to cook traditional Egyptian recipes; doing her own pop ups in London has been a way for her to reach those people. Previously we’ve ran training programmes for migrant refugee cooks, which tailored more to teaching them food hygiene and culinary skills.

We’ve just finished our first book, which is called Stories on Our Plate: Recipes and Conversations, featuring twelve home cooks that worked on the supper club series. We’re taking the book on tour in September and October and our second edition will be coming out the following October. It has been a fascinating eight-month project, working with two anthropologists and my co-director, who is a food anthropologist as well. Our aim was to strike a balance between having a conversation in a kitchen and cooking to recipes. Each recipe shoot was a two-hour long informal session with the cook; having a natural conversation with them brought up themes such as moving to London, sense of belonging, preserving recipes that have been handed down and taste memory. Allowing them to lead the conversation has built a portrait of each of them; twelve cooks, each with three brilliant recipes along with an understanding of who they are and why they’re doing what they’re what doing.

The idea behind taking the book around the country is to encourage local cooks and local initiatives in other towns to take up a similar project with support from us where needed. We’re looking to do three or four editions of this book because this approach of stepping away from a traditional cookbook has got so much potential.

What led you to setting up SOOP?

I spent five years in community conflict resolution in Bradford, working with people on conflict, relationships and day-to-day life. Food always played a role, there’s custom having tea and snacks first before tackling conflict that takes place across different cultures. Personally, I’ve always had a good relationship with food and been a good home cook, but what I saw at that time was an emerging conversation of how we see food as a restorative communal activity. I moved back to London and joined a small NGO in Amsterdam which was working on a project in the south west Balkans, using food to resolve post-conflict reconciliation. Essentially setting up communal meals between local communities and business leaders to re-establishing scarred, fractured relationships. After spending a year there, I came back and during my master’s programme I did a research project on culinary citizen cooperation; looking at projects across Europe and North American that use food as a bridging gap between fracture communities and communicating that to public administration and government. My world was gastro-nationalism, hummus wars and nationalism through food. And that’s when SOOP was born, my earliest thought to focus on people’s food identity whilst providing a social and economic opportunity. I reached out to the food anthropology community; the second or third person that responded became my co director, she has the same approach to food but being a food consultant and anthropologist, she brings a different perspective, so a perfect match.

In the beginning we looked at who would be best served from this kind of project within London, and we really wanted to work with people who might not being getting the same opportunities to express their food identity, so we focused on engaging with those from migrant and refugee backgrounds and introducing the idea of pop ups to them. The organisation has evolved naturally since then. In the last, eight or nine months about 90% of cooks that get in touch with us are everyday home cooks with all sorts of stories. We’ve responded to the demand, and it’s made us realise that this is for everyone from all backgrounds.

Where will you be this time next year?

Over the next year, we’ll be doing a lot more on the book project. The pop-up series continues to thrive, we do that once a month, primarily across south London and we’re now taking that out of London as well. My co-director is relocating to Canada with her family so she’s starting up a series in Toronto with a slightly different twist to it; working in schools and doing early age food story-telling programmes.

We want to keep going and enrich the foundation blocks of what we do. You won’t see a change in direction in the next year, but you’ll see a more of what already exists. There will always be limitations on what we do in a business sense, but we don’t want to be steered by things we feel we ought to do, we’ll continue to do what comes naturally to us – not just for us personally but for what we feel is right for SOOP. We’re a community interest organisation and so will remain true to the name. We continue to strengthen relationships with the cooks that have been part of the series and out of that are able to share more opportunities for them. They’re not employed by us, however, we’re able to signpost them to opportunities such as private party and corporate event catering requests, this makes us more of a network organisation and speaks true of our organic approach to the business.

Take a look at the Stories On Our Plate website and keep up to date with what they do on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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