Review: Jamie’s Ministry of Food

I’ve walked past Jamie’s Ministry of Food (MOF), nestled in the heart of Leeds Kirkgate Market, on numerous occasions.  Although it was clear that cooking lessons were held there, shamefully I never really understood what the place was all about.

I was invited along on a surprisingly warm and sunny February afternoon to meet Manager Chris and Cooking Teacher Neil to find out exactly what does go on at MOF, and to get stuck into one of their cooking classes.

So, what is Jamie’s Ministry of Food all about?

Before I took part in the class, Chris gave me the lowdown on MOF’s history and what they are involved in today.

You may remember Jamie Oliver’s TV show ‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’, filmed in Rotherham in 2008 for Channel 4. The aim of the show was to bring back lost cookery skills to the people of the town, which at the time was listed as one of three areas of the UK with the highest levels of obesity.  After the show, and realising the high need in Rotherham for these skills, the first MOF in the country was established by the Jamie Oliver Group  The aim was to provide hands-on food education for everyone, working with various public and private partners and the charity sector.

Chris expanded on this:  “Really the Jamie Oliver focus with MOF has been cooking from scratch and keeping cooking skills alive, with healthy eating a secondary focus. Healthy eating and good nutrition is primarily public health’s focus with cooking skills the secondary focus, so it’s a perfect blend of the two objectives coming together in one project, plus of course the added benefits for Zest of people gaining confidence and making social connections encouraging healthy living through nutritious and cost-effective cooking and recipes.”

Chris is the Service Manager, who works with cookery trainers Neil, Yvonne and Anthony and a number of volunteers. Chris, an experienced and trained chef, is originally from Newcastle and has worked at MOF for four and a half years.  Neil worked in several jobs before the opportunity at MOF came along, including as a lollipop man and school cook. He received intensive training from the Jamie Oliver Group, and three years later, he cheerfully tells me, “This is the best job that I’ve ever had.”

Despite having different professional backgrounds, Chris, Neil and Yvonne (previously a school cook) share the same goal: to improve the lives and health of people in Leeds through their hands-on cooking programme, cooking nutritious and tasty food from scratch.  Their passion and dedication to this goal were evident throughout the few hours I spent with them.

Providing opportunities to the people of Leeds

MOF’s roots and heart are in the mission to teach people to cook and to help improve people’s health, but they see people from a wide cross-section of the community attending their courses, wanting to cook Jamie’s recipes (all recipes cooked at MOF need to be) including companies carrying out team building sessions, widowers who have never had to cook for themselves before, and people who want help with weight management or other concerns.  Their oldest attendee to date has been a 94-year-old gentleman!

The MOF Leeds is overseen by a number of organisations and projects, in addition to The Jamie Oliver Group. Leeds City Council’s ‘One You Leeds’ initiative, was commissioned following a comprehensive health needs assessment of the City. One You Leeds provides an integrated and easy-to-access option for residents to address a range of lifestyle issues including giving up smoking, weight management and physical activity, without the need for a re-referral. 

There is a particular emphasis on attracting those in the most deprived areas. Zest, established in 2002, is an independent, not-for-profit, registered charity supporting people living in disadvantaged areas of Leeds.  Zest offers support and opportunity, addressing health inequalities and social isolation.

Reed Momenta addresses individual needs and maximise outcomes through fun and interactive interventions that are evidence based and outcome driven

Links to local learning disability and autism groups are also well established, with people referred to MOF from these groups who may be living by themselves for the first time and have little cooking experience or knowledge on how to eat healthily.

Left-over food at MOF each week is used to carry out public promotions in Leeds, giving out free food whilst telling people about the cooking school.

The cooking sessions

During my visit I was taking part in Neil’s Taster Session, aimed to give people a flavour of what goes on in the sessions, and encouraging take-up of cooking courses.  Before the class started, I got talking to Carole, who now volunteers at MOF after attending cooking classes there for 5 years.  Carole’s responsibilities include setting up the ingredients and preparing the kitchen ready to be used.

My fellow cooks were carers from Leeds Council, who support vulnerable people, and therefore the healthy cooking skills they would learn would be passed on to the people they support as well as benefitting themselves and their families.

After the usual health and safety formalities, Neil taught the class how to cook a pasta bake from scratch. As well as showing tips on knife skills, it was clear that the emphasis was on how to cook healthy food.  For our dish this meant using wholemeal pasta, and avoiding jars of pasta sauces which are high in sugar and salt, instead making your own from chopped or sieved tomatoes at a much lower cost.

As an experienced cook, the session didn’t prove too difficult for me, but I still learnt some new tricks from Neil.  Did you know that washing your hands in cold water removes the smell of chillies and garlic that can often linger for a while?! From speaking with some of the Leeds Council workers afterwards, it was clear they were keen to sign up for the 8-week course – in fact, some of them did before leaving!

Courses run from Monday to Saturday, with three different 90-minute time slots: 10.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm. Courses are 8 weeks long, and the classes are kept small, with no more than 10 people per session, giving that personal feel.  Places are cost means tested, starting from as little as £2 to £8 per session. Sessions include the loan of a cookery apron, all ingredients, the use of an impressive professional kitchen, and recipes to take home as well as the food you have cooked.

Everyone who attends an 8-week cooking course is personally contacted at three and six months afterwards, to monitor their progress on improvements in their lifestyle.

Most courses take place in Leeds Kirkgate Market, but some are held at Gipton Fire Station for people living nearer to that area.

The only eligibility criterion is that you or your company must have a Leeds postcode to register onto a cooking course.

The Future of MOF

Unfortunately, owing to government cuts, the founding MOF in Rotherham had to shut its doors back in 2017. However, venues are still open at locations across the country, including Bradford, London, the North East and Birmingham.

These venues rely on council funding, which to continue needs to demonstrate the evidence-based outcomes of the cooking schools, as well as the continued take-up of classes by communities.  Many people referred to MOF are often done so via social prescribing, a growing concept connecting people with a range of non-clinical programmes, services and events in their local community.  In addition to healthy cooking programmes, this could also include walking groups, mental health counselling, debt management advice, employability skills, volunteering, family fitness, and mindfulness sessions. The aim of social prescribing is to reduce reliance on medication and NHS service, with the ethos of ‘Prevention is better than cure’.  In the recently published NHS Long Term Plan, social prescribing is a key objective, and this bodes well for organisations such as MOF.  One of the plan’s aims is that within five years over 2.5 million more people will benefit from social prescribing.

Chris and Neil are clearly very passionate about the ethos of MOF and there’s no doubt that they will be able to drive this forward.  To do this they need to continue to have people registering onto their courses.  If you have not already done so, help them to spread the word!  And if you are looking for an opportunity to volunteer for a worthwhile cause, they are always on the lookout for people to help.

Jamie’s Ministry of Food, Leeds, can be found at Unit 524, Row G, Kirkgate Markets. For further information, or to book onto a course, contact them on T: 0113 242 5685


Photography by Cath Kane.

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