A HUDDERSFIELD chef has become the most popular man in his village after serving hundreds of free meals to the elderly, the vulnerable and the housebound.
Ben Franco provides weekly supplies of hearty fare to the people of Almondbury with the food being distributed from a local newsagent, with the help of Kirklees Council.
And he says the response from grateful folk often leaves him in tears.
Like many chefs Ben, who says he is “proprietor, boss and the guy who fries the chips” at his restaurant The Barn, has seen his diary get somewhat lighter in recent weeks following the coronavirus lockdown.
But he’s been rattling his pots and pans to make food for those less welloff, and cooking up a storm.
Ben closed his restaurant two weeks before lockdown and initially got involved in the Food4heroes initiative, providing meals for staff at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary.
Then he decided to focus on Almondbury.
Partnering with his friend Rocky Jalota, who runs Rowley’s Newsagent on Northgate, he began making dozens of tubs of microwaveable main courses and desserts.
It’s become so popular that it’s even got the backing of Kirklees Council, which is to put £120 a week towards the cost of ingredients.
“I make about 70 meals a week, which is about all I can handle at the moment,” says Ben.
“My dishes are designed to be tasty, filling, easy to store and easy to reheat – just to try and get something healthy into people.
“Some of the elderly I’ve spoken to are existing on tinned soup. That’s not right.
“People shouldn’t be going hungry.”
His recipes have included classic beef stew – “something that can be safely put in the fridge for three days” – Mexican pasta salad and chicken, vegetable lasagne, and spicy chicken with couscous.
He even does dessert, with the biggest winner being jam roly-poly and custard.
One customer in Wakefield rang to say he’d pay £25 for two portions.
Ben joked that he’d deliver it personally, leave it on the doorstep and give the cash to charity.
“I drop the food off at Rocky’s shop every Friday – we call it Franco’s Friday – from 10am to 11.30am.
“Sometimes there can be people queuing. They’re there for their elderly mum or their neighbour.
“I do get really emotional about it. I’m 50 years old and 18 stone but I cry every day.
“Certain people have asked for 10 meals for people on their street.
“I’ve also dropped off food for people that can’t get out of their homes.
“I have so much support. I’m getting messages from old women saying they’ve had my food and it’s been the best thing all week.
“The spirit out there is great. It’s fab being to be able to do this. I’m feeling proud.”
Father-of-two Ben estimates he’s made 200-300 meals in the three weeks that he’s been cooking for the community.
He says the plan is to continue for as long as the lockdown is in place.
Meanwhile he is offering a takeaway service from his restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays.
He estimates he has been pledged around £4,000 in donations towards his food but stresses that he cannot accept the cash. Instead any money raised is passed to local charities.
He adds: “Before I opened The Barn in Almondbury in 2016 I had a restaurant called Nosh, which opened in 1998.
“I have lived in this village for 22 years. It has given me a life. This is my way of giving back and it’s working.”
Liberal Democrat councillor Paola Davies, who secured the support of colleagues to push for financial backing from Kirklees Council, said Ben and Rocky personified community spirit in testing times.
“In their willingness to help the village they show Almondbury at its best.
“They are doing a great deal to bring the community together and in doing so helping Almondbury to support itself.
“Things like that are what we as a council should be supporting.”