Chef’s Dish: Lesley Draper talks to the real junk food project

Grilled Red Mullet with Spiced Lentils, Charred Vegetables and Pesto
Grilled Red Mullet with Spiced Lentils, Charred Vegetables and Pesto

Imagine being faced with a mound of mystery ingredients – and just three hours to transform them into a tasty meal for 150 diners!

That was the reality for chef Mathew Rodgers and his team when they undertook Sheffield’s first Real Junk Food Project in May.

The REal Junk Food Project - Sheffield

The REal Junk Food Project - Sheffield

Since then the group has staged four pop-up events, feeding more than 500 people and saving 1.5 tonnes of food that was destined for landfill.

The next event takes place at Burton’s Restaurant on Saturday and Mat can’t wait.

“I never realised the scale of waste,” he says. “When I walked through the door at the first event, I was amazed at the amount of food that had been donated – all classed as waste or surplus, but none, in my professional opinion, beyond use.

The driving force behind Sheffield’s Real Junk Food Project is Jo Hercberg, who gave up her job in the travel industry to launch the initiative after hearing about a similar project in Leeds.

Chef Mat Rodgers

Chef Mat Rodgers

She began by setting up an online presence: “Within days it snowballed and I was inundated with offers of help. Within six weeks of going live we ran our first pop-up with the help of 22 volunteers, my parents’ camper van and a lot of 15-hour days.”

Mat is a catering assessor at Sheaf Training, working with the city council on food poverty, and in his spare time he works as head chef for the Burton Street Foundation, which trains adults with learning disabilities.

Highlights of his career have included cooking for Chelsea FC, during his time as head chef at Tankersley Manor. It went down so well that captain John Terry asked for a flask of his soup to take home.

TRJFP is a world away from those days, but Mat is dedicated to the cause: “I believe we could really make a difference,” he says.

Chef Mat Rodgers at work

Chef Mat Rodgers at work

“There are a number of food banks around the city, stocked with tinned and packet food. If we could replace them with community-based TRJFP cafés that operate on a pay-as-you-feel basis – which can include volunteering instead of money – we could feed people good, healthy, nutritious food.”

He enjoys the challenge of turning waste into taste: “It’s great to get my creative juices going, to produce dishes from the food donated,” he says.

His chosen dish was made at the first pop-up, using donated food: “I grilled the fillet of red mullet and served it with spiced lentils, charred veg and pesto. It’s a good balance of flavours with a little heat that works really well,” he says.

* Saturday’s pop-up TRJFP event takes place at Burton’s Restaurant, Hillsborough, from 6-8pm. First come, first served.

Recipe by Mathew Rodgers

Grilled red mullet with spiced lentils, charred vegetables and pesto


(serves 4)

Grilled Red Mullet

Red mullet filets x 8

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

3 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic

2cm piece of fresh ginger

Small bunch of parsley

Salt and pepper

Spiced Lentils

400g red lentils (pre soaked)

1 white onion finely diced

2 cloves garlic

2 red chillies

1 litre vegetable stock

1 tbsp garam masala

1 tbsp paprika

1 tbsp cumin

Salt and pepper

Charred Vegetables

2 peppers, sliced

2 courgettes, sliced


50g pine nuts

80g basil

50g parmesan

150ml olive oil

2 cloves garlic



Finely chop ginger, garlic and parsley; juice and zest the lemon and add to the olive oil. Score the skin on the red mullet, place in the oil marinade and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.


Heat a small pan over a low heat and cook pine nuts until golden, shaking occasionally. Blast in a food processor with the rest of the pesto ingredients until smooth.


Finely chop the onion, garlic and chilli and shallow fry in a saucepan for 4 minutes. Add dry spices, cook for a further 2 minutes. Add the lentils and stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for approx 45 minutes.


Slice the peppers and courgettes, brush with olive oil and place under a hot grill for a few minutes, turning half way, so both sides are slightly charred.

Red Mullet

Grill the mullet, skin side down, for approx 4 minutes then turn and cook for 1 minute. Serve immediately, placed on top of the lentils with the charred veg and drizzled with pesto.