Danny McCubbin at Fifteen
Food & Drink — Eat

Danny McCubbin at Fifteen

United States

Mood of Living  /  Oct 5, 2017

Since starting in the world of food as personal assistant to Jamie Oliver, Danny McCubbin has remained with the chef and his charity organization Food Revolution.

Involved since the early days of Jamie’s pioneering Fifteen apprenticeship program at Food Revolution, McCubbin shares the positive impact the organization has had on hundreds of graduates and the restaurant industry at large. With innovation and the pay-it-forward mentality of Jamie’s organization, Danny is seeing the great influence Fifteen and other initiatives are having on youth today and the cultures they are a part of.

Q & A with Danny McCubbin

Mood of Living: How did the Fifteen concept and apprenticeship program come about?
Danny McCubbin: Fifteen was the first restaurant that Jamie opened in 2002. Jamie set the restaurant up as a Social Enterprise to help young people who were facing challenges in life. The program was set up to give them the opportunity to study to become a top-class chef and get first hand experience of this in the restaurant at Fifteen.
MoL: What sets the apprenticeship apart from other endeavors that help young, unemployed people? And how is the Food Foundation involved in other areas of the community?
DM: The government in the UK has set some new standards for hospitality apprenticeships and there is an opportunity for training providers to work with chefs and restaurants to teach young people more then just cooking skills. The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation is focused on teaching people from all walks of life about good food and especially how to cook from scratch. This includes a School Kitchen Garden project and Jamie’s Ministry of Food that allows families to learn about good food even if their resources or funds are limited.
Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo.
Jamie Oliver and Gennaro Contaldo.
Residents working in the kitchen at San Patrignano.
Residents working in the kitchen at San Patrignano.
MoL: Can you speak to the problems of youth employment and the hospitality industry that inspired the restaurant?
DM: Jamie is very open about the fact that he is dyslexic and that he did not do well in a classroom environment. Cooking was something that he excelled at as he was around food from a young age. After enjoying a great deal of success as a TV personality and publishing very successful cook books he wanted to give something back to young people. He believed, and still believes, that cooking is a very rewarding career for young people and that food can be a vehicle to turn your life around no matter what has happened in your past.
MoL: How have you seen Fifteen’s impact on the hospitality industry? Is the government apprenticeship program having a lasting impact?
DM: Many people from all of the world have been inspired by what Jamie did all those years ago. People have gone on to adopt the Social Enterprise model in a variety of industries. We have learned that if you give support, purpose, structure and trust to young people who have had a challenging life then the results can be outstanding. Surprisingly, hospitality does not feature in the top 10 apprenticeships that young people sign up for in the UK. We are working to change this.
MoL: As Fifteen moves away from its original structure, how is awareness of the global food market becoming integral?
DM: The nature of food and cooking has changed since we launched in 2002. There are now so many varying paths that you can take in food such as street food, Pop Ups, Supper Clubs and food styling. There is a lack of good quality chefs in the UK and we plan to address this by expanding the apprentice program. There are over 40 Jamie’s Italian restaurants in the UK and the decision was made by our Foundation to extend the apprenticeship program to young people all over the country, rather then just in London. We also felt that it was time to expand the program so that it was not just focused on training that would lead to a job in a fine dining restaurant.
MoL: How have you experienced Fifteen’s success? Do you have a favorite story?
DM: I feel very privileged to have been at every graduation since the first group in 2002. There have been many great stories and achievements from the graduates. 90% of our graduates say that being a part of Fifteen has had a positive effect on their life. The stories that really move me are not necessarily the ones where the graduates achieve great things like being in TV or writing their own cookbooks, rather it is when I hear that they have given up a life of crime or drugs as a result of finishing the course.
MoL: How do you see the food and hospitality industries as critical to culture and the world today, both in the UK and around the world?
DM: We have plans to teach the apprentices that by learning to cook and taking this on as a career that they then will become “Global Food Citizens.” The apprentices will get to experience what it is like to be a part of a global food landscape and they will learn about the pillars of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation that include: food education, nutrition, food waste, sustainability, cooking skills and ethical buying.
MoL: You have held many different positions at Food Revolution — what has attracted you to being with the foundation so long? How have your roles contributed in different ways?
DM: I started working for Jamie when the company was relatively small. My grandparents had a farm in Australia so I grew up knowing about food. Everyone in our family cooked and we also grew all of our own vegetables. I was not part of a culture of processed and packaged food. Jamie is very open and he is always learning from other people. I feel blessed to be working for someone who values and appreciates your opinion and skills, this has always been something that I cherish. I have also learned a great deal about food campaigning and also how to set up a business that gives back and helps others. I have worked in many aspects of the company from digital, social media, and marketing but it has always been the charity side that has attracted me.
MoL: Tell us a little about your work on Food Tube – what have been some great experiences / chefs / social enterprises that you have discovered through it?
DM: We now live in a world where it is not uncommon for a business or business leader to look at how they can help others, and by this I don’t mean just fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities. Food is the one thing that we all have in common and many food-based community projects are being set up all over the world. I believe that now is the time that we all need to connect and food is the best vehicle to do this. I try to convey this on my Food Tube channel but it can be confusing because the community think that I am a chef or that I create my own recipes. At the moment I am looking at how I can make my channel more community focused and I have some plans. I think that there is a need for more quality stories on YouTube about food and about the community, I just need to make the time to do this!
MoL: How many people were affected by Food Revolution Day?
DM: Last year our Food Revolution Day event reached over 700 million people.
The interior of the Fifteen restaurant.
The interior of the Fifteen restaurant.
A starter dish at the restaurant.
A starter dish at the restaurant.
MoL: You founded the UK branch of the San Patrignano Foundation. What inspired you to get involved and how did your work with Jamie encourage you to pursue this?
DM: San Patrignano is the worlds most successful drug rehabilitation community. Based in Italy it is a long term free residential program where the residents learn one of 52 skills available to them. Fifteen was invited to take part in a food festival that was held in San Patrignano about 10 years ago now. We are very aligned with the community as both of our organizations believe in giving young people a chance in life by learning a life skill such as cooking. I visited the community as a guest around 7 years ago and as soon as I entered the community I knew that I wanted to help them as much as I could. I then spent the next 2 years visiting and learning from the residents, with many of them becoming life long friends. The fact that the community does not believe that addiction is a disease resonated with me. The philosophy of San Patrignano is simple – enter the community, confront the reasons why you took drugs in the first place, learn to trust yourself and others then start to rebuild your life. The solution to addiction is a social rather than a medical one. Four years ago I went part-time with the foundation so that I could set up the UK San Patrignano Association. I now help UK residents to enter the community. I feel blessed that I work for a company that allows you to follow your own dreams and passions and for people who give me the chance to do this.
MoL: Having originally studied art and ceramics, how do you continue this creativity and creation of art? How else are you creative in your home life?
DM: I enjoyed a relatively successful career as an artist before I moved to London 20 years ago. At the time I was not strong enough to take criticism of the artwork that I produced and my life was defined by being an artist. I have grown to know myself through giving up that life and moving to London. My path has lead me to Fifteen and San Patrignano and through my experiences and life lessons I can truly say that I am happy. I also feel that there is so much art is food, how to plate a beautiful dish, the gorgeous dinner settings and plates, art is everywhere and not just in an art studio or a gallery.
  • The kitchen at Fifteen.

    The kitchen at Fifteen.

  • Sean and Will, two Fifteen graduates.

    Sean and Will, two Fifteen graduates.

  • Danny with two graduates, Jai and Adam, at San Patrignano.

    Danny with two graduates, Jai and Adam, at San Patrignano.

  • Gennaro Contaldo with Fifteen Cornwall apprentices.

    Gennaro Contaldo with Fifteen Cornwall apprentices.

  • McCubbin outside the restaurant with two Fifteen graduates.

    McCubbin outside the restaurant with two Fifteen graduates.

MoL: Can you describe your experience as a Torch Bearer for the Olympics in 2012?
DM: This was one of the greatest days of my life. I was so moved by the team of people who I ran with, all of them chosen because of their dedication to community work. This moved me as much as running the streets with the torch and sharing this moment with thousands of people. Even if there was criticism of the London Olympics, that day showed me how great humanity can be.
MoL: You clearly love food! – what’s an ideal home-cooked recipe you could share with us?
DM: I think it would have to be a Ricotta and Spinach recipe that my friend Barbara showed me from Italy. You can see the video below!
MoL: What ingredient could you not live without?
DM: Chili or…yep, I am a chili freak!
MoL: What advice would you give to someone starting out in a social enterprise, charity or food?
DM: Start looking where you are right now; your work place, your friends, your local community. Don’t feel like you have to set up a charity that has millions of pounds, look at what you can do to make this world a better place from the moment you wake up until you sleep. I feel that you have to start with a “community mind” and think about your circle of influence every day. Say thank you to a bus driver when you get on the bus, commit to random acts of kindness every day and the results will astound you.
MoL: Where do you go for peace of mind and spirit?
DM: I practice mindfulness. I was lucky to befriend and train with a wonderful chap by the name of Andy Puddicombe, who founded the app Headspace. Andy taught me that you can have peace of mind even if you are on a packed tube, going to work, squashed like a sardine.
MoL: How would you define quality of life?
DM: A few years back, a group of Fifteen graduates and I went to Calais to cook for refugees on Christmas Day. The moment I met a young man from Syria who had lost everything including his family I realized that I never have anything to complain about in my own life. Quality of life is based on who you are, what you say and what you do as opposed to what material things you accumulate. I recently rented my flat out and moved in with a friend, every day I am becoming lighter in terms of the material things that I have accumulated. I think one day I will live off the grid in a small white house on a farm with no clutter…
MoL: What does fulfillment mean to you?
DM: Good friends, good food, feeling connected, having a purpose and being happy.
MoL: What is the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
DM: My dad died about 8 years ago. I was lucky in that I got to be by his bedside for the last 3 days of his life, and I was there when he left us. He had such strength of character and died with such dignity. Through this experience I fully embraced that our time is short and to start looking at what is right with me and my life as opposed to what is wrong. I went to San Patrignano not long after Dad died and since then I have never looked back.
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In 2016, Danny traveled with two Fifteen Graduates to San Patrignano and the Wefree festival to share both projects that he is so passionate about. Adam and Jai tell us about their experience with Fifteen.


Adam Estevez  – Fifteen graduate, 2014

Before Fifteen I was a lost and angry teenager. I always knew right from wrong. I was raised well. But I was more focused on popularity and made a lot of bad choices and got involved with a lot of crime. I got to a point where I was really drifting from my family and thought I needed to change my life around.

Fifteen taught me many lessons. From how to control my anger through hypnotherapy, to learning how to really appreciate food produce. It marked a big change in my life, with all the sourcing trips to some of the best food producers in the country. It really helped me tune in to my passion for food. In all it essentially helped me learn how to be a man.

Life after Fifteen has been great. I’m a self-employed chef; the resident chef of a Chateau in France. I travel around the world doing weddings and making people happy with my food. It has been hard work, but I’m really happy with my achievements and can’t wait to see what the future holds for me.

The greatest lesson I learned at Fifteen was that every ingredient has a history and all of the best produce has been a work of art. On our trips to farms we would see that a tomato isn’t just a tomato, there are so many things to learn about a simple tomato. That is the best part about my job because the learning never stops.


Jai Harrower – Fifteen Graduate, 2011

I’m more organized now and I’m getting better with managing my finances. My attitude towards people has changed too. I know how to work well with anyone now, even people I wouldn’t normally get on with.

Fifteen gave me the chance to turn my life around and now I’m giving that same chance to others. Through Wefree I met and befriended a wonderful person, Noman, who is from Afghanistan. Noman and I have become friends as he lives in London. Last year Noman told me that he was planning to go to Calais to cook for refugees as he knew people from his country who were in Calais as a result of all of the bombings in Afghanistan. Noman asked if I would help him and a group of his friends cook for refugees in Calais. I said yes and in a very short amount of time we were able to get a team together, lots of food that was donated by Jamie’s company and also some funds to hire a car to drive to Calais from London to cook for the refugees. We also had a lovely girl by the name of Chloe with us who has also been part of Wefree.

When I went to Calais I was very moved by how appreciative the refugees were that we cooked for them. They were so kind and grateful. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I was so moved that I decided that I wanted to return and cook for many more refugees. When I got back to London I asked Danny to help me with this bigger project and together we raised £5,000. We returned back to Calais on Christmas Day with a team of staff from Fifteen and we cooked for nearly 1,000 refugees. We’ve set up a Crowdfunder to ‘donate-a-plate.’ We have some money left over from the project and I will now look for other ways to help refugees for the rest of my life.

FIND Danny McCubbin ONLINE
Photography courtesy of Danny McCubbin

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