Brothers James Carn and Frank Carn-Pryor bring healthy family meals to the masses through outdoor lessons during coronavirus pandemic
Knowing how to cook a healthy, tasty, affordable meal is one of the most useful skills for any family on a tight budget.
And two Suffolk brothers working to make that happen say it will really benefit people like their own mum, who brought them up while working long hours as a nurse.
Chef James Carn and Frank Carn-Pryor, who runs Explore Outdoors for Abbeycroft Leisure, hit on the idea while scratching their heads for a joint project during the Covid crisis.
“We thought about running foraging courses, then thought rather than that let’s look at developing this plan,” said Frank.
Money was available from Suffolk County Council, which had asked Abbeycroft to run a project to support children at risk of holiday hunger.
It resulted in a series of outdoor cooking lessons for families on free school meals, and is continuing with online videos of James demonstrating all the recipes.
They have gone down a treat. “Every day I go into our Facebook page and people are sending photos of what they have cooked at home,” said Frank.
Using the recipes you can make five nutritious dinners for a family of four at a total cost of no more than £30 – the allowance that replaced free school lunches during lockdown and the holidays.
“I want to show people cooking isn’t scary,” said James. “When we were growing up our mum Jane –she won’t mind me saying this – was not a great cook.
“She was a single mum with a demanding job as a nurse at West Suffolk Hospital and didn’t have time to do much.
“Something like this would really have helped her with ways to cook affordable, healthy and really tasty meals.”
The brothers grew up in Troston, and went to Thurston Community College. At home, teenage James, even then a fledgling foodie, took to ‘jazzing up’ his own meals to make them more interesting.
The chef, now 29, said: “I have three children and when I worked out the recipes I was trying to create something we’d be able to use at home.
“I spoke to my friends and we all tend to have four or five staples which we cook over and over again.
“The recipes work out at a maximum of £1.50 per person. I know you can buy 30 fish fingers for £1 in some supermarkets but there’s not a lot of nutrition in them.”
The choice of 20 recipes – which include five desserts – are adaptable and also involve useful cooking skills like how to produce a perfectly poached egg (use a really deep pan).
There are established favourites like burger, wedges and coleslaw, alongside dishes like potato gnocchi, spring vegetables and parmesan.
“You can mix and match things. They include techniques it’s handy to know, plus a few little tricks people can build on for themselves,” he said.
James took some of the early cooking sessions himself but also trained other Abbeycroft instructors so they could take over.
Getting the parents and children to prepare and cook the food themselves, before eating it round a campfire, works better than just watching a demonstration, he says, adding that all the recipes are transferrable to a stove.
Frank, 32, says it helps overcome the hurdles like how to safely use a knife or peeler, and teach basic things like remembering to stir right down to the bottom of a pan.
Each family who attended also got a box containing the ingredients for five of the recipes including meat, salad, potatoes, risotto rice, vegetables and pasta.
Some of the recipes are for dishes people often think are difficult, but are not hard to do if you know how.
“Take risotto,” said James. “A lot of families would never think of buying the arborio rice to make one, but it’s really cheap. It’s just getting people to use it.”
He is also a big fan of butter beans. “It’s so nice to get carbs from a different source other than chips or mash.”
Frank says local suppliers gave the project a lot of support. “All of them have been really good because it involved lots of little drop-offs,” he explained.
Explore Outdoors – part of Abbeycroft Leisure – runs outdoor holiday activities for children who qualify for free school meals, at centres including Bury St Edmunds , Great Cornard, Brandon, Mildenhall and Stowmarket .
This summer it borrowed a site from the Guides in Newmarket and hopes to do so again in the future. “There’s a lot of deprivation in Newmarket and a real need for our activities,” said Frank.
“In the next 12 months we hope to be able to do something in the Hadleigh area as well.”
The videos were filmed in James’ kitchen at home by Frank’s partner Megan Saggers. She banished Frank from the sessions almost immediately after one helpful suggestion too many.
“I was prepping a chicken and he said can you do it facing the camera. I’d already cut it, but he said can’t you just pop it back together?” James recalled.
Their friend Cat Rayson, who works in media production, did the editing and designed the recipe cards.
James is head chef at Pea Porridge in Bury – which has a coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand, awarded for excellent, affordable food.
He returned to the restaurant, where he used to work as a sous chef, when it reopened after lockdown. Before that he was head chef at The Angel Hotel, in Bury, and has worked in the past at Tuddenham Mill.
“I started cooking when I was 15 – it was my favourite subject at school – and got a job washing up in a hotel.”
He found he loved the noise, pace and discipline of a professional kitchen. “I really enjoyed the environment.
“But I’ve always been interested in food. When Mum was too rushed to spend much time on meals I used to jazz up my own food.”
He also helps out at West Suffolk College where he has mentored students in competitions and does voluntary classes on his days off.
Frank joined Abbeycroft in 2013. “When I was at uni I used to work in the summer holidays at Thorpe Woodlands, an outdoor education centre near Thetford. After uni I went back there as a senior instructor,” he said.
They hope to run the cooking sessions again at half term, and in future holidays. “It’s just about keeping the rain off – it’s all manageable,” said Frank. Once Covid restrictions are lifted, indoor sessions in winter could be a possibility.
The Explore Outdoors programmes are funded by Suffolk County, West Suffolk, Babergh and Mid-Suffolk Councils.