Surrey's answer to Jamie Oliver
PUBLISHED: 19:03 11 November 2009 | UPDATED: 20:52 15 December 2014
When TV chef Jamie Oliver embarked on an ambitious project to turn 15 disadvantaged teenagers into professional chefs, the country was gripped. Now Surrey chef Simon Boyle has gone one better than that
Simon Boyle has never been one to take the conventional route in life. He may be a gifted chef, with nearly 20 years experience under his belt, but he simply couldn't imagine working from one year to the next in a restaurant kitchen.
It's no surprise then to find him seven months into a new project with the House of St Barnabas homeless charity in Soho, London.
Simon's private dining business, Beyond Boyle, is using the charity's grade I listed building - which ceased to be a hostel for the homeless after 160 years in 2006 - as a venue for parties and corporate events.
In return, every six months he and his team are training up to 16 homeless volunteers as chefs and front-of-house staff, at the end of which they receive a City & Guilds certificate and help in finding jobs.
"What we're trying to do is take on people who want to change their lives significantly, because it's not a difficult mountain to climb to help people once you know they want you to," explains Simon, who lives with his wife Annette and toddler son Joseph in Dormansland.
Beyond Boyle has signed an initial 18-month contract with the House of St Barnabas to run the building as a venue for private dinner parties, functions and corporate team-building days - but there are bigger plans for the future.
Simon wants, ultimately, to lease the house long-term and turn it into a private members club complete with a spa and an "archive museum where people can see what happened in the house in the past."
"I think the idea of bringing together the very wealthy and lucky and the very unlucky and poor in one place, but not in a master/servant type of arrangement, can be a very rich experience for both," he says.
"The homeless people can understand they can aspire to more, and I think interacting with the people on the training scheme can have a positive effect on the wealthy people too. I'd like to think they'll learn from that, perhaps it will humble them a bit, and they'll spend money there so we can get more homeless people through."
It may all sound like Simon is viewing life through rose-tinted glasses, but he's long been convinced that bringing people together over food can help to build relationships and break down barriers. That belief is at the heart of everything Beyond Boyle does.
The company offers three different dining experiences; private dining for organisations wanting to hold meetings in "inspirational" settings; team-building days whereby groups work together to cook a meal before sitting down around the table to eat; and private dining in people's own homes.
The first two are available at Beyond Boyle's Surrey base - a converted chicken shed in Dormansland, aptly named The Chicken Shed and equipped with two large kitchens and a dining room - as well as at the House of St Barnabas, with both venues staffed by the homeless volunteers.
"Each experience ends up with everyone sitting around the table to eat, and what happens is they start talking as a team and having a conversation that's totally different to if they went paint-balling or had a meeting in a boring hotel somewhere," explains the 34-year-old.
"Although I've always enjoyed cooking and eating well, for me it's never really been about the love of food. When I cooked as a child, my father used to make everyone sit around the table, and the conversations that happened around my food were what really inspired me."
A conventional start
Simon's career started off conventionally enough; catering college, a traineeship at The Savoy and jobs in several top restaurants. Then, when he was 22, he wanted to experience something different, so he worked on cruise ships, as a personal chef to a prince in Saudi Arabia, and then ran Anton Mosimann's academy in Battersea.
He went on to launch his own private dining business in 2000, purely cooking for people in their own homes, and it was all ticking along nicely until something happened that would change Simon's view of the world forever - the devastating tsunami in Sri Lanka.
"It was Boxing Day evening and I was running my son a bath, and it was the rush of water and Joseph laughing that made me think, 'I'm so lucky, I've got all this'," he says. "I had been to Sri Lanka many times when I was cruising and I thought, 'I've got to go'."
A makeshift hospital
So Simon flew to Sri Lanka, where he helped run a makeshift hospital, looked after children who had lost homes and relations, and cooked for the volunteers.
"I came back after four weeks and life changed," he says. "It was like there was up until that day and then there was after that day - everything I was to get involved with would have to stand up to my test of integrity.
"All I had seen was death and loss, and it made me question what was important to me. I thought back to the whole reason about why I became a chef - that it was all about the people - and I came up with a new concept for Beyond Boyle, which was bringing people together over food."
Continued charity work
Simon's work for charity has continued ever since he returned from Sri Lanka, and not only with the House of St Barnabas.
He has been using the Beyond Boyle formula to help a group of disadvantaged children from a school in London to get along better and develop an interest in cooking. So far, seven boys have been put through the team-building cookery experience, either at the Chicken Shed or in Soho, with encouraging results.
As for progress at the House of St Barnabas, seven homeless volunteers have completed the programme, not just training with Simon and his team, but attending life-coaching sessions too.
Over the last six months, the volunteers have been staffing events at both the House of St Barnabas and The Chicken Shed, and Simon has also taken them to The Chicken Shed for "inspirational days" when they've helped grow vegetables in the garden or visited nearby farms.
A new group is due to start this month, and the scheme has been such a success that Simon is now working with a homeless hostel in Nottingham to set up a similar project.
"We did lose a couple of guys along the way but we've learnt a massive amount, which will help us when we take on the next group and develop the project in Nottingham," says Simon. "I know the seven who have stuck with it have enjoyed it and we've got three people in particular whom we feel have really prospered and changed for the better.
"That's what it's all been about - through our passion for food and running our business, trying to get people to aspire to more themselves."
- For more information about Beyond Boyle at The Chicken Shed and the House of St Barnabas, call 01342 837553 or 020 7437 1894, or visit www.beyondboyle.com.