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15 February 2019

Hackney people: Alicia Weston

"This is a war" says Alicia Weston. Adding: "We're in direct competition with convenience shops and fried chicken chains. So we have to strategise. We have to learn what the other side is offering, and under cut it."

Hackney People-Alicia Weston-I

Alicia Weston photographed during one of her cooking classes. Photo credit: Mehul Derodra.

Bags of Taste, is the organisation she created to help people eat better for less, and which has just won her a British Empire Medal (BEM) from the Queen. Founded in Hackney in 2014, it now operates in 11 boroughs across England and has reached over 2,800 people.

But, says Alicia, she came to cooking relatively late in life. "I had one Malaysian and one English grandmother. My Malaysian grandmother was famous for being an amazing cook, but she never taught any of us. It was my English grandmother I learnt the basics from," she explains. 

Sent to England from Malaysia, to receive an education, the young Alicia would visit her grandmother on holidays and weekends, and would help cook. But when her grandmother moved into sheltered accommodation, her culinary education ground to a halt. She remembers arriving at university and 'burning the rice five times before I gave up and survived on boiled potatoes and sausages'.

In her second year, everything changed. She said: "I had found a wonderful flat with some friends. It was perfect, but we needed one more person to fill the final room and help to pay the rent. So I asked a friend. His response was 'I'll take the room, on one condition. You cook supper, every night, and there has to be a pudding'. I was so desperate to take the flat, I agreed."

That year, Alicia learnt to cook. She recalls: "We all contributed £10 a week, and I would do the grocery shopping and scour second-hand shops for recipe books. We ate a cooked meal every night, including pudding.

Despite studying Pharmacology, Alicia got a job in banking after graduating. But, she says: "The reason I love cooking so much is because I miss being in a lab. I still approach cooking as an experiment, what can I do to make a recipe quicker, easier, cheaper..."

In 2010, she decided to take her experimenting one step further, and left her job. "I didn't know what to do with myself," she says. Then she had a brainwave. Supper Clubs were just taking off. The going rate was around £25 a head.

Alicia says: "I thought: I'll set one up and donate all the profits to charity. My mother is Hokkien [a culture originating from South-East China] and they are famed for their frugality. So I have always budgeted carefully. I thought I could cook the meal for £5 a head, and £20 would go to charity.

"But when I told people that I was only spending £5 on ingredients, they assumed the food would be crap. It wouldn't take off. It proved to be the hardest thing I had ever done."

Hackney People: Alicia Weston

Alicia Weston. Photo credit: Mehul Derodra.

Eventually, though, it did take off. These days, the Parkholme Supper Club is rated one of London's best, and put Alicia on the cooking map. Two years later, she got a job working for a think tank called the New Economics Foundation.

While listening to a podcast about the cost of obesity and diabetes to the NHS, she thought: "This is crazy, if this carries on, the NHS is going to go bust." So she approached the problem as a think tank would, delving deep into the research.

If you want to persuade people to cook for themselves, she decided, it has to be tastier and cheaper than a takeaway, and it has to be fun, quick and not too unfamiliar. It was on those principles that she founded Bags of Taste.

The organisation provides free cooking lessons, showing participants how to make nutritious meals for under £1 a portion. At the end of each class, participants can buy recipe ingredients for £3: enough to make two tasty meals, each for two people, at home.

She ran her first pilot in 2014, calling everyone she knew in order to find participants, including Rev Niall Weir, from St Paul, West Hackney. Alicia says: "I asked if any of his parishioners would benefit from the classes. Two women came along, then reported back to him, calling the experience 'life changing'."

So Rev Weir asked Alicia to run the course in his church. The Hackney Parochial Charities became her major funders, and the two women came back for a second course, and then a third. Alicia recalls: "I said to them, 'this is crazy, why don't you start helping the new participants?' Now one of them is our Operations Director and half of our volunteers in Hackney are ex-participants."

Even Hackney's Mayor, Philip Glanville, has taken a course. And it seems the Queen is a fan too. She awarded Alicia a BEM in her New Year's Honours list this January, proving that good value food really can be fit for a Queen.

Bags of Taste cooking courses take place in Hackney at the Round Chapel, E5, and Frampton Park Baptist Church, E9, on Tuesdays. 

Updated: 11 March 2019

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