Mary-Ellen McTague - the Creameries in Chorlton chef now cooking for NHS staff
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 May 2020
Rebecca Lupton 2013
In these challenging times, inspiring people in the food industry have used their skills and energy to help others. Janie Ash, co-founder of Women in the Food Industry, spoke to Bury-born chef Mary-Ellen McTague about the remarkable way she is helping frontline staff and vulnerable people in Manchester
Chef Mary-Ellen McTague knew what was coming. With a sister working as an NHS doctor, the grim forecast ahead was clear. But rather than languish over the likely devastating impact on her own business, the hugely successful The Creameries in Chorlton, the talented chef moved quickly and started thinking about how to help others.
‘We closed a few days before lockdown was announced,’ says Mary-Ellen, a former winner of the Lancashire Life Chef of the Year Award. ‘I was hearing how bad it was from my sister. I asked what help was needed and that was to feed people – I knew I could do that.’
For weeks now Mary-Ellen has been working tirelessly to make sure NHS staff on the frontline of the battle against coronavirus have food to eat as well as providing much needed supplies for food banks and meals for parents with children in hospital across Manchester. She had to move quickly. As more restaurants started to close, she knew there would be a lot of food going to waste.
‘It’s been hard as I haven’t got my restaurant or my usual team around me,’ says Mary-Ellen. ‘I am working with new people. Loads of other chefs and restaurateurs around Manchester and the North West have joined forces and it started by taking waste food from restaurants having to close. That was the first food we cooked with.
‘We are co-ordinating meals and doing lots of different things and it’s all growing by the week, but essentially, we’re cooking food for people who either need it or would really appreciate it.’
Mary-Ellen isn’t afraid of hard work. She became the first female chef at the then Michelin-starred Lake District dining institution, Sharrow Bay in Ullswater, worked at Heston Blumenthal’s internationally renowned The Fat Duck in Bray, with Paul Heathcote in Lancashire and at Ramsbottom’s much lauded Ramsons restaurant before opening Aumbry in Prestwich, the neighbourhood restaurant that brought her universal praise from customers and some of the most respected food critics in the industry. Following its closure, she ran several pop-up restaurants across Manchester before opening The Creameries in 2018, a restaurant that pulls in diners in their droves.
She has used that same verve it took to make it as a chef to the task currently at hand – and many other hospitality businesses have come forward to help.
Mary-Ellen is cooking from The Creameries and has galvanised a group of other chefs who are putting their kitchens – commercial or domestic – to good use. Rich Sharples, executive chef at Gary Usher’s Elite Bistros, Rich Carver and The Honest Crust Team, Sam Buckley from Where the Light Gets In, Anna Sogaard from Erst, Rachel Stockley from Baratxuri and Ross Parker from Beehive Food are some of the chefs, cooking in isolation, with a band of volunteers working within health guidelines to handle collections and deliveries safely.
‘We’ve been getting more and more donations. We received a ton of meat from Aubrey Allen. We’re also getting support from Cloudwater Brewery who have allowed us to massively expand the operation by storing and delivering the food and they are also buying some food for us.
‘We’ve got a couple of vans and we’ve got individuals making deliveries and we have a safe protocol system when we deliver to the wards.’
‘We’ve had donations from various suppliers but they are having a tough time too. But what’s seems to have happened is everyone who has been affected has immediately started to turn their thoughts to how they can help.
There is a network of wonderful events companies in the North West where their entire calendar for the year has been cancelled, so they’re working together to support us.
‘They’ve given us a load of freezers which were delivered to us in an ambulance. Everyone just seems to want to work together and help out where they can. It’s amazing. I’m just seeing the absolute best of everybody.
‘From my experience, doing something useful right now is a great benefit for me personally. The world is upside down and everything has changed. Having some structure and a reason to get out of bed is really good. I know us chefs and the hospitality lot are generally quite a hyperactive bunch, so going from extremely busy to not busy at all is really hard.’
Mary-Ellen has the backing and support of several Manchester based homeless charities, too, as well as Manchester City Council and she has been helping the emergency food response led by local charity Back on Track – of which she is a patron. She has also taken over Emmie’s Kitchen at Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, a scheme that sees a meal cooked every Wednesday night for families who are having to stay at Ronald McDonald House at Manchester Children’s Hospital.
‘Together we are trying to help support their services by providing additional meals. We share resources a bit as well, so if one of us gets access to a load of takeaway containers we’ll share it out a bit or if anyone has an excess of food we’ll ask around the groups to see if anyone wants it. Equally if anyone is short of food, we send an email around asking for ingredients.
‘There are food banks and homeless charities who are desperate for volunteers all over the country. There’s definitely a huge demand for chefs and anyone who can organise a kitchen because the demands on these already excellent and capable homeless charities have suddenly been overwhelmed. There are thousands of meals being produced in Manchester, so they need support to look after the most vulnerable people.
‘There are lots of women’s charities that need volunteer help, too. If you want to do stuff, there’s lots to do but equally if doing nothing is right for you then that’s fine too. This situation is hard for everybody and there’s no wrong or right answer.’
Mary-Ellen hopes benefits to the work being done could go beyond the immediate emergency need and hopes a shift in the way people buy food and drink could be beneficial for the hospitality industry’s future.
‘Everyone is buying locally and that’s a really nice way to buy food and let’s hope that continues,’ says Mary-Ellen. ‘There’s definitely been a shift already in thinking about what’s important and what you really need.
‘It’s still a bit early to talk about positive things that come from this but I really hope this sense of community I’m seeing now is something people really value and don’t want to let go of once things return to some semblance of normality.’
Anyone in the industry who may be able to help can contact Mary-Ellen through twitter, @MaryEllenMcT.
Women in the Food Industry
Women in the Food Industry is a pioneering new initiative co-founded by Lancaster’s Janie Ash and friend Mecca Ibrahim in January 2019. It is the place for each and every woman in the food industry to tell their story, to be heard and be given equal respect. Their purpose is to bring women to the forefront, to have a voice and to show collaboration beats competition. They believe none of us is stronger than all of us and together, anything is possible.
To find out more and become a member visit womeninthefoodindustry.com.