Out of the kitchen and into the heat of Africa
It is eight years since Gordon Ramsay gave Sheffield restaurateur Justin Rowntree a mauling during filming of Kitchen Nightmares.
It might have been an F-word extravaganza but Ramsay’s advice, says Justin, saved his business, the re-named Silversmiths in Arundel Street.
“I would not be here today if it wasn’t for the blueprint Gordon gave me. It was hard to hear some of the things he had to say, but it made me realise that it wasn’t about me, it was about the restaurant, the business and the staff and since then we have gone from strength to strength, concentrating on local seasonal produce – we are all about Yorkshire.”
It’s a different team from the Kitchen Nightmare days but most staff, including the head chef, having been in place for more than six years.
Having a team of staff he can rely on means that Justin can take time out to pursue his charitable pastimes.
He has just returned from running a marathon in the sweltering humidity of Uganda in memory of his mother and grandma, raising £4,000.
“My mum and grandma were from Guyana and moved to England in the late 1950s,” explains Justin.
“They were both brought up in a convent and when they came to England their overriding principle was compassion for people who were less well off than they were.
“My mum became a nurse and midwife and worked in some of the poorest parts of India and she and my dad ‘adopted’ a little girl in India and although me and my siblings knew we would never meet her, it taught us to have compassion for people no matter how far away they may be and to treat them as we would our neighbours.”
Justin’s family supported CAFOD, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, working with communities across Africa, Asia and Latin America to tackle poverty and fight for justice.
When Justin heard about the work the charity was doing, to get fresh water to some of the remotest and poorest parts of Africa, he wanted to do something to help.
“The week before the marathon was truly life-changing. Meeting people in the remotest of villages, rebuilding their lives after 20 years of war, their dignity, determination and relentless strength to improve their lives is something we in the UK can learn so much from.
“One in four people don’t have access to fresh water. Everyone, even young children, has to walk miles to get fresh water, carrying it back to their homes in big yellow jerry cans. In some of the remotest areas it can be a seven-hour round trip,” says Justin, who spent a week in Uganda before running the marathon.
“Creating boreholes closer to their villages not only mean they can water their crops, wash and free up time so that the children can go to school, it can be a life-saver.
“One of the elders said to me, ‘Your money is giving us life, because water is life’. That summed it all up for me.”
Justin has been running marathons since he did his first London Marathon in 2004.
That time he ran it for osteoarthritis as his mother suffered from the condition.
“I wasn’t a runner at all,” he says. “I remember my first training run and I was so pleased when I managed to run one kilometre.”
He has come a long way since then. Most of his marathons have been to raise money for research in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a debilitating condition suffered by his eight-year-old nephew Kiran. “I have now progressed on to triathlons and later this year an ironman. You can’t keep asking people for money without increasing what you are doing.”
Running the marathon in Africa brought with it its own challenges.
The 42 kilometre race in rural Uganda took Justin through remote areas where the villagers have hardly ever seen a white face.
The Ugandan Marathon claims to be ‘a race like no other’ and Justin said: “At about mile 10 I understood this claim and agreed that this, my 12th marathon, was the best yet. Running shoulder to shoulder with a big international crowd and then locals, some in dilapidated plimsolls, flip flops and bare feet left me humbled and awestruck, children all the way cheering, ‘Hi Mazungu’ (the affectionate term for a non-local).
“The 26 miles of hot, hilly terrain cut through the rural back roads of Masaka with stunning views at every turn. I loved it. And to cap it all I came in as the eighth ‘Mazungu’ from the entire international field.”
He also organised a charity dinner at Silversmiths, where all the staff gave their time for free, raising £2,500 towards his total.
“I’m blown away by the support and every penny will be used to benefit hundreds if not thousands of those in need in Uganda. I think my mum would be really proud.
“CAFOD’s motto is Just One World. I’ve seen that to treat everyone as your neighbour, to see the world as your community and to offer compassion is something powerful. It is something I’ll never forget.
“We wouldn’t have raised as much money without the help of the team at Silversmiths and without the help of Gordon Ramsay we wouldn’t still be here and doing as well as we are.”
Justin has a new partner since the programme, Stella, who is not in the restaurant trade, but shares Justin’s love of running.
Gordon Ramsay may not have been back but Justin says he keeps an eye on the restaurant’s progress.
“Every once in a while we get people coming in saying Gordon sent us and if we ever go to any of his restaurants we are treated really, really well, but we would really love to see him back in Sheffield again. We owe him a lot.”