With the cost of living crisis forcing the NHS nurses to visit food banks and take strike action, one young chef Niaz Caan, from London’s Brick Lane has taken it upon himself to bring a nutritious hot meal to weary hospital staff members this winter and to also appeal to people to donate towards his campaign so that he can raise £13,800 (after 138 Brick Lane, his lucky number) to help local hospital charities in London and some food banks surrounding the London area.
On Monday 21 November, following the dinner service and in the early hours of the morning during the night shift, Niaz launched his campaign by preparing and packaging up to 500 boxes of biriyani, packing them into his hatchback and delivering them to the nurses and health workers at Whittington Hospital in North London.
Niaz intends to deliver biryani to as many hospitals in the Southeast across a period of four weeks, with the final delivery taking place on Christmas Eve. He aims to feed over 5000 nurses, wearing a Santa outfit for the deliveries, to help bring a smile to their faces during what is expected to be an extremely tiring, stressful, and hectic period for the NHS.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Eye, he speaks about his journey as a chef in the UK and what motivated him to start delivering hot meals to the NHS staff.
Please tell us about yourself.
I have been cooking in kitchens since the age of 14, learning how to cook predominantly Indian food. However, I also have experience in Italian and English cuisine. I am now 22, and while this is young, it means I have almost a decade’s worth of experience in hospitality (I ran a takeaway in Kent aged 16). I am now the executive chef at City Spice London and I am planning on launching my first cookbook with the working title of ‘Vegan recipes from the King of Brick Lane’ in Spring 2023. I am fortunate enough to work in one of the best Indian restaurants in London, and I am proud to be taking it from strength to strength!
I graduated from the University of Birmingham with a 1st Class (Hons) in BSc Economics.
In terms of the restaurant, City Spice has been at the forefront of representing South Asian cuisine. We have been featured on National Television and in print publications. Recently, we were featured on Channel 5 where I shared some of the secrets of making Britain’s all-time favourite Chicken Tikka Masala, with my added twists.
Celebrities such as Matt Smith, Lily Jones and Michael Bisping have dined with us, and we have been the pioneers of giving traditional Indian cuisine a modern twist with our range of Indian culinary experiences such as the City Spice Challenge.
The fusion of traditional Indian recipes with Bengali fusion means we were able to elevate the flare of South Asian cuisine.
What motivated you to start delivering hot meals to the NHS staff?
I wanted to give particular thanks to the NHS nurses and doctors who have worked so hard for the last three years due to COVID-19 and all the subsequent variants.
These professionals work incredibly long hours and have emotionally and mentally challenging jobs exacerbated by the intense pressure due to the nature of work. Many nurses and doctors don’t even have time to eat properly and sustain themselves on crackers and biscuits during their shifts.
I work long hours as a chef, but I don’t see death daily nor do I have to deal with people receiving heartbreaking prognosis.
While I understand that we, as a nation, have moved on from COVID-19, it could not be done without the great people at the NHS. But with their hospitals falling apart, nurses not getting the pay rises they clearly deserve, all compounded by the cost of living crisis affecting everybody – we have forgotten the conversation that needs to be had. We need to help the NHS.
I feel since we moved on from COVID-19, many people have forgotten that the NHS is still in dire need of help. I wanted to raise awareness, and restart the conversation that the nurses and wonderful people of the NHS need help, and they need it soon. It seems implausible that nurses are worse off today than they were before the pandemic began, despite all their hard work. But unlike during the pandemic, when we clapped and showed incredible support, I feel this, like many of the donations for example, have subsided.
Why did you choose to serve biryani?
Biriyani is a nutritious, healthy option on my menu in terms of the way it is cooked and how it is served. Having minimal sauce, nurses can eat it on the go which helps with their busy schedule. Furthermore, by ensuring nurses eat a nutritious meal that is low in salt and oil, but high in protein, taste and is easy to eat, means nurses can continue to attack their pressured shift, without feeling lethargic or heavy due to their warm meal.
Although a lot of options at City Spice, such as items from our vegan menu are healthy, I wanted to make sure the food was easy to eat, and could be eaten on the go, hence the choice of cooking Chicken Biriyani and Vegan Biryani for the wonderful NHS.
How was your experience on the first day?
Amazing! I was a bit tired, not coming home until 3am as I had to cook major batches of Biryani and of course drop them off, but it meant the world to me to see nurses, hospital security, porters at the hospital delighted at the prospect of Biriyani. They loved the food and within minutes over 250 servings of Biriyani had vanished! It made me so happy hearing nothing but good words about the food, but the experience was amazing as it’s clear the team needed this as a morale boost for the night as they work a pressured shift.
Do you think that healthcare workers don’t get the pay or respect they deserve?
Personally, no, and I think it is absurd. Nurses are worse off not than before the pandemic began, compounded by the cost of living crisis. The recent pay rise proposed by the government is simply not enough and I feel like healthcare workers have been hard done by. To work so hard for the people of the UK throughout the pandemic, but have not received the thanks they deserve in terms of pay. Furthermore, you see stories of astonishing waste in PPE from the government, nurses now having to visit food banks to get by, and our ex-health minister chasing fame on the television instead of fixing his mistakes and all of this I think, is a very sad situation for the UK.
Please tell us something about the £13,800 you hope to raise for the NHS charities and food banks. Also, do you have any strategy to encourage independent restaurants across the country to join the campaign?
I aim to raise £13,800 (after 138 Brick Lane, my lucky number) to donate to local hospital charities in London and some food banks surrounding the London area. If you can help our campaign, I would be so grateful! The proceeds will be evenly distributed across all charities of the hospitals I am visiting. The funds will be spread throughout hospitals in London to develop well-being facilities for the staff at the hospital.
You can donate here! https://www.gofundme.com/f/the-wonderful-nhs-working-tirelessly-this-winter?qid=12847bf120a07888fdfa0ae81e63df4f
I am also raising these funds for food banks because there are reports of NHS staff visiting them as they cannot afford to feed themselves or their families. This should not be happening in modern Britain – we need to do more to help! Hopefully the donations can help alleviate some stress that the NHS workforce are facing and also the impending rush food banks will inevitably get as we go into winter.
My main strategy to encourage independent restaurants to join the campaign is through raising awareness! I am grateful that Eastern Eye is giving me a platform for this and I really hope we can start a national effort where independent restaurants can create a national effort to bring some warmth and smiles for the NHS through the Christmas period. I hope we can spread the word, raise awareness for the NHS and make nurses smile!
Nurses in the UK are reported to go on strike the for first time in history. Do you think more needs to be done to support the NHS staff and their families?
100%. Not only in pay, but in other aspects too. The NHS is drastically short-staffed which means staff are working some 10–12-hour shifts with very few and short breaks. Furthermore, their working conditions are getting worse with hospitals facing long delays for repair work. Some of these repairs need to be done urgently. As a result, some hospitals have roof damage, leaking ceilings and many other issues which mean nurses could be at risk during work.
As the cost of living crisis exacerbates the situation for all, we definitely need to do more. The morale for the NHS staff is low, and while I appreciate, we clapped for the NHS through the pandemic, the NHS staff cannot take these claps to the shop.
I hope through this campaign, we can give the NHS the voice it needs and help raise awareness of our wonderful superheroes – the NHS workforce!