At first sight a taco doesn’t look like it’s going to change lives.
In the hands of carer-cum-Ice Cold Chef John Joyce it becomes a talking point, a means of sharing food, chat, and encouraging youngsters to help out.
He’s holding court in the kitchen at Layton’s Community House on Grenfell Avenue, a community hub sustained by ward councillors Kath Benson and Martin Mitchell, out of their ward budget.
He’s helped, as ever, by friend and former colleague Pete Mercer, a salt of the earth type who ensures all get a warm welcome to the community house – and Kath, a former carer herself, mucks in too.
With space at a premium at Blackpool Carers Centre’s HQ, the Community House is vital to dementia support, craft sessions, counselling and bereavement support.
Parent carers join a Cookery SOS community event there. They want to meet ward councillors Kath and Martin and thank them for the facility. The food prepared by fellow carer John, a rising star of social media and key member of Blackpool Illuminations creatives, proves a great leveller.
It’s like the Waltons
John, author of Cookery SOS, was taught to cook (over an ice cold lager) by wife Bev after she was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. He now teaches other carers. He’s already got the young adult carers and dementia support group eating out of his hand. And the kids in the parent carer group follow him about like the ‘Pie Piper’...
The messier the eating, the more fun. Their affection for John, a dad himself, shows in hand-drawn ‘thank-you’s’ and the speed with which they rally to his side for a picture, at the end of a sunny afternoon of fun food, good chat, and chill out time in a pocket gem of a garden which won Pete a Blackpool in Bloom award last year.
The children are immersed in the act of cookery, the magic of watching a meal materialise, no microwave, and helping out. They set table, serve food, sit down to eat, and play nice. Parent carers, youngsters, volunteers John and Pete, councillors and parent carers staff Ann Hollis, Colette Gartside and Helen Hay – who runs the charity’s work placement scheme – become an extended family clan.
“It’s like the Waltons,” says Tracy – gran to four of the children present – to carer Sarah, mum to Liam, six (favourite food: nan’s pie followed by chocolate cake). Both say meal times can be chaos at home when also balancing enough plates relating to health or social welfare, education or additional needs, to challenge a circus act.
The Community House has become home from home for many carers. Martin says: “We know this place helps people flourish and thrive. It’s a real community asset. It’s by very much run for the people, by the people.”
Kath, a more recent recruit to council, drops in regularly. Like everyone else who visits, scheduled or otherwise, she can count on a smile and a cuppa and biscuit from Pete.“If we could clone him we would. Every community needs a Pete.”
Both love the drive and dynamism that John brings to his Ice Cold Chef persona for the charity.
“He’s fantastic, and it’s clear to see the kids, and the carers, really respond to him,” says Kath.
John says he owes it all to Bev, back home with assistant dog Stanley, on a MS ‘bad day’. He adds: “It’s such a cruel and debilitating disease.” Teaching him to cook was born of necessity, but it was also a great diversion, taking the couples minds off their shared grief.
As tactics go it blew counselling out of the water.
It also introduced John, former adult carer of the year, to other carers. “I try to help them to be positive. You can’t live with anger and resentment.”
As for the kids’ verdict on his cooking: “10 out of 10,” says Courtney, eight, favourite food: Yorkshire pud. “Eleven out of 10,” Jessica, 11, who preferred John’s pizza workshop. Liam’s on the naughty step so unavailable for comment. Madison, four, is far too busy eating. Leoni, seven, favourite food: chicken soup, has the last word. “5000 out of 10,” she declares. “And a half...”
• Details Blackpool Carers Centre call (01253) 393748 or visit blackpoolcarers.org