boti heroes: plant stories
We are super excited to share a brand new series with you, BOTI HEROES, a spotlight on some of the incredible people in Brighton, Hove and Sussex, who are working on projects that support our wonderful community. And the good news is, there are A LOT.
First up, we spoke to plant-based duo Gem Ogston, of Gem’s Wholesome Kitchen, and Aye Mya Oo, of Fu Fighters. They recently launched Plant Stories, a community-inspired project that’s been a long time in the making. Their plant-based community kitchen gives people access to a fully equipped kitchen for just £10 per hour, something our city has been missing. The space will be home to some incredible projects to support the community too, more of which they share with us here…
Hello, you pair of plant-based goddesses! So, first things first, how did you two meet?
Aye: Well, it was through mutual friends, actually. When I started my tofu business Fu Fighters, I really needed some advice from someone else who was running a plant-based food business, so I tapped Gem up.
Gem: And then we just started hanging out and we’ve been friends ever since. And now our kids are friends too, which is really cute.
Brighton is a great place to build a community around something you love. So, tell us a little bit about Plant Stories and how it came about.
Gem: Me and Aye have been working seperately on our food businesses for a while now and we both share the same struggles with working from home. But as we’re both mums, we need to be at home a bit, so we’ve been looking for a kitchen for about two years now. We wanted an affordable kitchen to share the space with other chefs and food producers, because we don’t need it all the time.
Aye: And it can be lonely working from home. We found a kitchen and it fell through just before the first lockdown back in March and then we were quite relieved that it didn’t work out for us then.
Gem: Then after lockdown we came down to Street Diner in Brighthelm Gardens one Friday for some food and we saw Christina (Street Diner’s co-founder) and we started chatting and that’s when she mentioned that the kitchen at the Brighthelm Centre was available. Then Kate who is the manager was here, we came and met her and it all just happened.
It’s like it was meant to be. So, how exactly are you going to use the space?
Gem: We’re using it to run both our businesses, but we’re also sharing it with other plant-based chefs, a variety of people who need a kitchen for maybe even just a couple of hours a week.
Aye: Just like Gary aka Brighton Food Boy, who is working on his new pickle [Yumlah, available for pre-orders soon!]. He was here this morning actually, helping us out. A local vegan burger company Clean Kitchen also rent the space to help them with their deliveries on the weekends.
Gem: So we manage the space and rent it out to whoever needs it. It’s working really well.
It sounds like the perfect little foodie community you’ve started right here. So how do people get involved?
Gem: If anyone needs a kitchen for just a few of hours a week, we’re doing shifts of four hours and it’s only £10 an hour, so it’s very low cost.
Aye: It’s no-commitment kitchen use, fully equipped so they literally just bring their ingredients. That’s the great thing about it, if someone has an idea, they can just come in and experiment with all the equipment. There’s twenty-four-hour access too. We want it to be a space where people can come in and have someone to bounce ideas off and have a community to support each other when they’re starting a food business because it’s really hard when you start off on your own. And a lot of the time, people that start a food business tend not to be food business people, so often they are coming from a completely different occupation and they want to start afresh with something new.
Gem: Also, the great thing about this kitchen is that when community projects like this [providing meals for school children and their families] happen, it just means we can ask everyone that rents the space to help out and it’s been amazing. It’s about building a community of plant-based businesses because that’s what we all believe in and it’s such a big part of Brighton’s community, we want to be supporting that. We can all help each other and if there are jobs that one of us can’t do, then we can use our kitchen network to recommend someone else.
It sounds like something Brighton has needed for a while. So what do you see the future of Plant Stories looking like?
Gem: We really want to grow the brand. Aye and I work really well together and we’ve done supper clubs in the past. We want to grow Plant Stories and we’ve realised how much support people really need, even if it’s just physically being with someone in the kitchen. When you work on your own in a kitchen, or anywhere, it can be quite lonely.
Aye: Even just having someone working around you doing different things, having them there for a chat. It’s about connection.
It’s all about community, isn’t it. So, what do you love most about the community in Brighton?
Aye: Brighton is really inclusive and supportive, especially with plant-based businesses. We’ve found people have been so supportive of each other in the space, there’s no competition. Everyone that already runs a plant-based business is so passionate about it, they just want more plant-based businesses in the space.
Gem: Being part of Brighthelm is amazing as it’s a community centre, helping people with low-cost events so they can access events and music. The management team here are lovely and they want the space to be used so it’s been really amazing to be able to bring some life back into it. It’s an affordable space for all of us to share. No-one has ever done it here before and that’s what makes it exciting. It costs a lot to set up a business, buy big pans and everything you need which are expensive, so being able to share what’s here is great. It’s fully equipped with massive ovens, too. Today we cooked for 140 people and we could use both the ovens, which made it so much easier than trying to do it at home.
You’re the first Brightonians to feature in our new BOTI Heroes feature, so we would love to know who your Brighton hero is and why?
Gem: I absolutely love Sarah from Smorl’s. When I came back from Spain to live in Brighton about five years ago, I was working in a job that wasn’t making me happy, when Sarah suggested I start making some plant-based breakfast pots for them to sell at their shop in the Open Market. At the time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with food again and didn’t think anyone would buy them, but she managed to persuade me to do it. I started off by making five breakfast pots for her a week and that’s how my granola came about. Then I started doing energy balls and it’s just grown from there. She’s such an incredible part of Brighton and her houmous is the best.
Here at BOTI HQ, we are really glad this partnership happened, because we love Gemma’s Self-Care Cookbook. If you haven’t got your hands on a copy yet then add it to your Christmas must haves!
So, the reason we’re here at the Plant Stories kitchen is because you’ve been making meals for the community today, off the back of the news that kids meals wouldn’t be funded during half-term. What an amazing thing to do – tell us a bit about it.
Gem: We had to do something to help, so we decided to cook some soup for a few people. I put a post up on Instagram telling people we would be doing this and the response was incredible. People wanted to donate to support us with supplying meals for kids and families in the local community that need them, so we decided to put a funding page up. [At the time this was published, they have raised £5,879 in less than a month.]
Aye: When Gem put it up, at first she put a target of £500 and I thought, that’s too much, we don’t need that much to cook a few meals. But since it launched it’s just gone up and up and up, which has meant we’ve been able to go from making soup with leftover veg to providing a huge package for the whole family and we can put the rest towards more projects to feed more people that need it.
Gem: What we made during half-term went to about one hundred people and the only money we’d spent from the fundraiser was on Sainsbury’s vouchers for essentials to include in the package. We’ve been co-ordinating with everyone to make sure what we’ve made goes to the right places, working with a couple of primary schools to make sure it goes to the families that haven’t had the meal vouchers they usually get. We’re also working with some children’s centres. The food that we had donated for the half-term packages was just the right amount, so it worked out so well.
So what exactly did you make for the packages and who helped out?
Aye: The full package includes a veggie cottage pie, pasta sauce with six different types of vegetables, so a great one for the kids, some fried-up greens, some veggie lentil soup, flapjacks made by Luisa from Abeille Bakery, fruit from The Fruit Shop in the Open Market, fresh bread from Gail’s Bakery and some drinks, too. We are so grateful to everyone that donated their time and produce as well, including Infinity Wholesale, Pale Green Dot Farm, Fanfield Farm, Waitrose in Hove and local chef Lucie Simon.
Gem: And my husband Pete who has been amazing at putting the packs together and delivering them, too.
A proper family affair, as we’ve seen your kids helping out, too, which is brilliant. So what have you for planned for Christmas and how are you using the rest of the funds you’ve raised?
Gem: We’re really excited to be able to feed two hundred families this Christmas. We’re working with schools and the council to use the money raised to not only provide food, but we’re also creating an information pack that includes useful stuff like recipes, a shopping list, how to budget, how to use up leftovers and how to feed your family for twenty pounds. That’s going to be something we do every school holiday now, too, which we’re really excited about.
Amazing work. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Gem: When we came into this space and took over the kitchen, one of the key things that we really wanted to do was something for the community and we didn’t know exactly what that would look like. And then when the kids’ meals were stopping, it was something we just had to support. It happened really organically and felt so right. And now this is part of who we are. And the kids have been helping today, too, so it’s really good for them to know what’s going on and why we need to help.
The Plant Stories kitchen is based at the Brighthelm Centre in Brighton. Kitchen space is available to rent for £10 an hour; there’s no commitment but usually a minimum of five hours. If you have a project you want to get started on, contact Gemma and Aye via their Instagram channel. Hit the ‘donate now’ link above to support the work they are doing to feed the Brighton community.