The Skint Foodie, who likes to be known only as Tony, got the idea for his website, theskintfoodie.com, in spring 2009 when he moved out of the homeless hostel into which he had been living and into a housing association flat in Peckham. Aged 55, Tony had destroyed pretty much all of his life by then as a “completely out of control alcoholic” and clinical depressive. He had lost his family, a job in corporate events that had paid £130,000 in a good year, his home, and his sanity. The flat marked the beginning of a recovery that is ongoing. The best part about the flat was, he recalls, that the homeless unit had somehow saved his kitchen equipment, his espresso machine and his Le Creusets from the bailiffs. Along with his books, they looked suddenly, he says, like objects from another world.
Tony is telling me this at a cafe in the mental health unit at the Maudsley hospital in south London where, having been a patient, he now works as a volunteer. He likes to preserve something of his anonymity for a few reasons, but not least because he feels he owes it to all those he hurt in the past as he “pursued oblivion” to at least start to make amends before he announces himself to the world. One of the things you don’t realise when you lose everything, he suggests, is that you have no means of defining yourself. The Skint Foodie website, he thought, might be a way of getting at least one aspect of that back.
When Tony was drinking a bottle and a half of vodka a day, eating properly was far from his thoughts. Since those years, though, he says, “the ups and downs of my mental state have been exactly mirrored by my eating habits. When you can’t get out of the door or into the shower then getting into the kitchen is certainly beyond you…”
It took him a while and a long bleak period of relapse before he did anything about his website idea, but eventually – after something that he wrote about the “10 rules for a skint foodie” got picked up on Twitter – he decided to have a go. This was the end of 2011. Tony had by then realised that food might be crucial to his recuperation. In the past, in his 30s, he had not only been a keen cook but an avid eater-out in “whatever restaurant people were talking about. I’d been to Manoir aux Quat Saisons, the Waterside Inn, the Fat Duck in the first year of its operation …” Although food had been a passion, however, it was not until he got into his current circumstance that he saw it as a lifeline.”What you realise is you can’t control your income, the roof over your head. But you can control what you put on the table. The website was very much me working out a methodology of doing this. When you look at what is out there, cookbooks and TV programmes are all about the aspirational lifestyle,” he says. “But I see absolutely no reason why food should be the preserve of the middle classes. It isn’t in other countries or in other communities in this country.”
All of that thinking he poured into his website, which began with 200 recipes and which is written in a voice full of all the hope and frustration – and comedy and triumph – of trying to eat well on about £40 a week. “What I am trying to do in my life and in my blog,” Tony says. “is to make every meal a celebration of deliciousness. However simple and humble it might be.” The site now has 75,000 visitors a month.
There is talk of a Skint Foodie cookbook. When we speak, Tony is waiting on news about possibly expanding his voluntary role with the mental health services into a job. He takes nothing for granted.
“It’s a strange thing,” he says, “but for the first time in seven years I can begin to see a future that has me in it.”