If you keep up with our projects on social media, you will have seen plenty of photos of delicious looking dishes featured at our events. The man behind these is none other than our fantastic Community Chef Tona Sonato, who puts our communities at the heart of his creations.
Tell me about your role?
My role as Community Chef has adapted significantly, particularly over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdowns the Community Chef project had to identify the needs of local people in Wester Hailes during a very tough time. The resulting focus was to prepare as many meals as possible for distribution to those who required support, which, through our partnerships with the Holy Trinity Food Bank and Calders Residents Association, ended up totalling around 300 meals per week. This was very intense and required a lot of work, but there were never any leftovers which affirmed that the need was there. Once restrictions began to ease and more people could return to work, this need lessened, and although this was not drastic we could not afford to have any waste, as we have a zero-food waste policy due to the impacts that has on the climate. With that we had to look for alternative options, and we decided to focus on delivering food in the neighbourhood gardens themselves.
Currently I prepare meals for the weekly Community Picnics at Murrayburn and Hailesland Community Garden, through which myself and our Community Food Officer Catherine Fyfe aim to increase understanding of the benefits of a healthy diet to the variety of people across all age-groups that attend. One part of this is ensuring that I make a different dish each week, and only use local, seasonal produce, to demonstrate how many options there are for healthy food that does not impact the environment by transporting produce from overseas. Linked with this, part of my role is supporting people to see fresh produce in a different way, as by utilising produce they themselves have worked hard to grow in the garden, they can see the outcome and how it is applied to meals. Another element of this is creating an environment where people can enjoy and experience delicious and healthy food together, away from the tough realities of day-to-day life, in a welcoming and community-oriented environment.
What made you want to work for Edible Estates?
As a chef, I had the opportunity to open my own restaurant in Mexico City in 2020. Having previously worked for numerous hospitality companies, I came to the realisation that the food supply system is broken, and that changes need to be made for the benefit of the environment, and the farmers who grow the produce we eat. After understanding that and realising that I could help change the world through food, I wanted to do something, so I decided not to have suppliers and instead worked with the farmers directly as the first link in the chain. Doing so allowed me to better translate the work that goes into growing this produce to my clients through the food, though as a private entrepreneur it was a complicated task. When I was back in Scotland, Edible Estates contacted me and explained what work they were doing in communities, and it really resonated with what I had been trying to do in Mexico, however here I could utilise my ambition and motivation to benefit the local people and community, and through Edible Estates, I was given the opportunity to be able to do that. I really love what I am doing as part of the team.
What is your favourite part of the role?
My favourite part of the role as Community Chef is being both a link between garden projects and bringing enjoyable food to local people, and also being part of lots of conversations and connections with the community, I really believe that it is a gift to be part of it.
What is the most challenging part of your role?
The biggest difficulty I have found is having to deliver a lot with very little in terms of space and equipment, as the work takes a lot of energy and resources. We really are doing something great in the community and are receiving lots of encouraging engagement, so it can be frustrating to have so few resources and be forced to juggle a lot of different things, not just in terms of finance but also infrastructure for the gardens, as Murrayburn and Hailesland for example, would benefit from electricity and a tap. The meal preparation also takes a huge amount of organisation and even with that nothing ever goes as planned on the day, as there are always many variables outwith my control.
What do you hope to achieve in the role?
Ultimately I hope to support the community to establish a community kitchen, teach and equip local people with the skills required to manage the kitchen and preparation of meals, and then be able to move on knowing that the community has the resilience to self-manage that asset. Self-management and community resilience for me, should always be the end goal of these projects.
What positive changes have you seen in the community as a result of the work you do?
The primary positive change is the level of engagement and seeing the benefit of bringing back dignity to the community in terms of how nutritious and enjoyable food is accessed and experienced. It is fantastic to see the community become more receptive to our projects and events.
Do you plan what you are going to prepare for the Community Chef meals, or is it where your creativity takes you on the day?
We definitely have to plan, in order to ensure that it is as inclusive as possible in terms of catering to allergies, and also in order to put the care into the meals that the community deserves. The majority of the meals I prepare are of my own design, as I want this amazing community to experience the highest quality food possible. I also consider the meals ours as a community, because the gardeners, local people and the team are all part of the cycle that goes into providing the ingredients and the resulting final dish.
Do you have a favourite meal that you have made as part of the Community Chef project?
Neeps and tatties served with steamed greens and a cheese gratin has been my favourite to cook so far. It’s a beautiful dish, and I wanted to create something packed with vegetables that I knew would be enjoyed by a Scottish community.
What elements do you always like to include in a meal for the Community Chef project?
I always want to ensure that the meals are substantial and highly nutritious, with vegetarian sources of protein and fat, as well as carbohydrates and fibre. It also obviously has to be delicious and presented beautifully.
What for you, is the benefit of using produce harvested from the Murrayburn and Hailesland Community Garden when cooking?
The benefit is that we know how it is produced in the gardens, and being organically grown it is much more vibrant and colourful, you can see that especially with things like spinach for example. The fruit and vegetables also last much longer, and you can really taste the minerals. It also gives us more leeway in terms of budget when buying ingredients for the meals.