By Maeve Cullinan
A visitor walking into the soaring, contemporary dining space which is Refettorio Felix, Earl’s Court, would have no idea that it’s a community centre serving thousands of struggling people in London.
Based in St Cuthbert’s Church, Philbeach Gardens, Refettorio Felix is a thriving community hub.
Smiling volunteers serve a daily three-course lunch menu cooked by renowned chefs from London’s top restaurants, including Angela Hartnett and Michael Roux Jr.
Using fresh surplus ingredients provided by suppliers, the meal is available to anyone and everyone that might need it. Last year, the centre saved 25,360kg of produce from landfill.
Some of the fantastic food on offer at Refettorio Felix (Picture: Refettorio Felix)
The centre looks more like a cool event space than a charity offering life-changing services for those in need. And that’s because, by night, Refettorio Felix is just that.
To help fund its services, the charity opens up as a hireable venue space by night and at weekends.
Renovated by the award-winning designer Isle Crawford, the revenue from the wide range of private events funds roughly 20 per cent of the charity’s services.
Ali Kingsley, the chief executive, tells me that it gives a “restaurant experience to people who wouldn’t otherwise get it – it’s about being in a beautiful surrounding and treating people with respect.”
A registered charity which has operated as a day centre for people in need in Earl’s Court for more than 30 years, in 2017 the St Cuthbert’s Centre was transformed into Refettorio Felix in partnership with three-star Michelin chef Massimo Bottura.
The Italian restaurateur runs a non-profit, Food for the Soul, which aims to create radical change through the transformation of people, places and food.
A radically different approach to well-being is certainly on offer at Refettorio Felix.
The phrase ‘Soup Kitchen’, which in the opinion of Nick Hains, the chief operating officer, conjures negative connotations and almost Victorian ideas of welfare, is banned.
He said “It’s about the heart, that’s the essence, and the food is central to that ethos.”
A guest at the centre said: “When I lost my job, I was so embarrassed to come here.
“When you are on your uppers, and someone comes and serves you food, it’s good for the soul. It gives you hope for the future.”
Food at Refettorio Felix (Picture: Refettorio Felix)
Refettorio Felix also offers mental health support, a drugs and alcohol service, and alternative therapies including homoeopathy and aromatherapy.
Tina Hilaris, mental health coordinator, said people attending were often afraid of using statutory services, either due to bad experiences of mental health services in the past or stigma.
She aims to normalise mental health issues, building trustworthy relationships, opening a judgement free space for guests, and referring them on if they feel they need it.
Ms Hilaris accompanies individuals to appointments if they want her support.
It seems that Refettorio Felix’s work is part of a positive shift in welfare services, placing dignity at the heart of their services.
Central to their ethos is not pathologizing its service-users, something that is deeply needed as the cost-of-living crisis is projected to significantly increase the number of people accessing support in the UK.
Mr Kinglsey told me that “we are already seeing new individuals from different backgrounds; we are now seeing people who work, which we very rarely saw before”.
To see how you can support the charity’s work, visit the website here
Pictured top: Users and staff at Refettorio Felix (Picture: Refettorio Felix)