The clatter of plates and hum of conversation ring out across a busy restaurant floor. It could be lunchtime in any one of the many fashionable restaurants around London Bridge and Borough.
But Brigade is quite different – the restaurant, in a former fire station on Tooley Street, not far from the station – sees itself as a company with a social mission. Some 6,000 people who are homeless or with other serious problems, like addiction, have been supported by the restaurant over the ten years since it was funded.
Out of these, 149 have been directly employed as apprentices, with thousands more going through employability programmes the restaurant runs.
For head chef Marcilio Da Silva, that means his job is more complicated than just making food.
“I’m not just a chef, I’m a life coach, I’m their mum sometimes,” he said, speaking from a table at the restaurant. “At the end of the day what we want to achieve is make sure they feel at home.
“Sometimes when they come here they have no hope. They have no confidence. When you have no hope to live your life. They don’t even know what to expect from the next day.
“Sometimes they are a little bit down, and that’s the hardest part of this job. We always say, we don’t give up on them. Some of them have addictions, some of them have mental struggles. We deal with them individually – we treat them like people.”
“The hardest part of my job is to make them believe in themselves. But some of these skills, anyone can learn.”
Asked if it could be frustrating to work with people whose lives often lack structure, Marcilio said: “Absolutely not. This place brings my two passions together: cooking and helping people. What we want to achieve every day is to give a chance to these people who have had difficult times.”
Chief executive Simon Boyle set up the live-fire restaurant in 2011. He said he was inspired by his work helping with the relief effort after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.
“I really learned how you can lose everything just like that. It’s not necessarily your fault but sometimes stuff happens to you and that in turn has inspired me here.
Discussing the apprentice programme, he said: “Sometimes it’s a quick process, with other people you need a much longer, deeper relationship. It can be very satisfying, but also very frustrating when it doesn’t quite work.”
Since the pandemic, Simon and Marcilio have got fewer referrals for vulnerable people from their usual source: the Jobcentre and homelessness charities like Shelter and Crisis. Simon said the restaurant was now working with teenagers as young as sixteen through pupil referral units – special schools for children who have been kicked out of mainstream schools – as a preventative step.
The restaurant recently took on two teenagers from a pupil referral unit – and both did so well that Simon has since offered them jobs. The only problem is that one of them is facing “a very serious court case” in July could be sent to prison.
Simon added: “We’re now negotiating with the court about this being a much better route than prison.”
Asked how staff helped these children, whom others would be hesitant to put near a busy restaurant kitchen, Simon said: “We give them some love. I don’t mean that in a weird way. They’re coming into a family. Most of these kids don’t have families. Maybe they’ve been born in a certain place, or they’ve had experiences on an estate that have pushed them down the wrong way.
“Maybe they’ve got quite a lot of mental health issue that then the families haven’t been able to detail with. They get pushed around the education system. So love is really important.
Simon said that the teacher of one of the teenagers who was recently in on work experience was shocked that he wasn’t wearing a hoodie in photos. “It takes time to open up all that,” he said. “Of course he wasn’t in a hoodie – we’re not going to let that happen.”