It all started with a low-key January visit to a small community kitchen helping families affected by the devastating Grenfell Tower fire. A group of women at the Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in west London had come up with the idea to use the space to cook food for their families and neighbors in the wake of the June 2017 tragedy, which left 72 dead and hundreds homeless.
“The Duchess came round to have a look at the service we were providing,” says 38-year-old Zaharia Ghaswala, coordinator at the Hubb Community Kitchen, which started in September 2017. “She just got stuck in straight away. The next minute I realized there was an apron put on her and she was washing rice.”
Curious to learn more about the group’s efforts, the Duchess of Sussex (then going by her maiden name, Meghan Markle) was full of questions about their project, including how many days a week they ran the service. “I said, ‘Two days a week, due to funding.’ Then it lead to her trying some food, we had a meal together. She was fascinated with all the flavors, the cultures, and the dishes. She said, ‘We can do a cookbook.’ We didn’t think it would move this quickly!”
Inspired and motivated, Meghan, 37, quickly used her industry connections to secure a publisher for Together: Our Community Cookbook, a collection of 50 recipes and a self-penned foreword, to raise much-needed funds to run the kitchen full-time.
“She comes in, natural, fits in, puts an apron on… It just feels very supportive, very real,” says Ghaswala, a mother of two from west London. “The environment just makes everyone feel you want to join in. She was loving the recipes, the flavors that were put together.”
Over the following months, the Duchess privately visited the center on several occasions, getting to know the women on a deeper level and even helping in the kitchen. “She has got stuck in with helping, preparing, serving, making chapatis,” reveals Ghaswala. “It’s all very natural. She fits in really well. She thrives in the group, she inspires the group. We gather, and enjoy. She enjoys being with the women, seeing the women’s skills, their abilities and their talents coming forward.”
The Hubb Community Kitchen (a play on the Arabic word for love, hubb) was born after much of the community affected by the Grenfell Tower fire lacked a place to have hot meals. Explains Ghaswala, “Al Manaar opened their doors twice a week to offer this service to the community. A group of women came along and started cooking for their friends, their families. They would sometimes take food back home, to the hotel, or just socialize in the canteen and have it there.
“Now we offer a place where they can have friendship, they gather together and they enjoy it. Initially we started off with the Grenfell community. Then slowly the word went around. The ladies that are working at Al Manaar got involved and other people in the community came forward.”
The Duchess—who had a hand in the book’s creative process, including bringing on British travel and food photographer Jenny Zarins to capture beautiful images for the title at a Kensington Palace kitchen—shares what inspires her about the community project in the book’s foreword. “The kitchen buzzes with women of all ages; women who have lived and seen life; laughing, chatting, sharing a cup of tea and a story, while children play on the floor or are rocked to sleep in their strollers,” she writes.
“I have a lifelong interest in the story of food—where it comes from, why we embrace it and how it brings us together: the universal connection to community through the breaking of bread. Within this kitchen’s walls, there exists not only the communal bond of togetherness through sharing food, but also a cultural diversity that creates what I would describe as a passport on a place: the power of a meal to take you to places you’ve never been, or transport you right back to where you came from.”
She continues, “I immediately felt connected to this community kitchen: it is a place for women to laugh, grieve, cry and cook together. Melding cultural identities under a shared roof, it creates a space to feel a sense of normalcy—in its simplest form, the universal need to connect, nurture and communicate through food, through crisis or joy—something we can all relate to.”
While the Hubb Community Kitchen is currently open two days a week, publisher Ebury Press hopes to sell at least 50,000 copies of the title to raise proceeds of $328,900 (£250,000) for the kitchen to be refurbished and run up to seven days a week over the next two years. The book goes on sale in the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand on Thursday, September 20.
Ghaswala says that the women working in the kitchen are “very excited” about the launch of the book, which features recipes from all over the world, including India, Uganda, Russia, Morocco, and Iran. “They are just fascinated how their recipes, which are so personal to them, have come out in an international cookbook. Some of them dreamt of their recipes being shared.”
The ambitious project is the Duchess’s first major initiative since marrying Prince Harry in May. It was born during her visits to numerous community groups around the UK, a Palace source tells.
It is also the first official project carried out by Meghan with the support of the Royal Foundation, of which she became a patron in May. The Foundation is the primary philanthropic and charitable vehicle for the the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Says spokeswoman and director of innovation and insight Natalie Campbell, “We have been on a journey of [the women] submitting over 50 recipes, feeling empowered, feeling inspired. They have started to say, ‘I want to go out and feed the elderly, I want to do workshops for mums, I want to support children to learn how to create healthy food.'”
On Thursday, September 20, Meghan will host a celebratory event at Kensington Palace to mark the book’s launch, where she will be joined by Prince Harry and the women of the Hubb Community Centre to showcase their personal recipes from the book, including coconut chicken curry, aubergine masala, caramelised plum upside-down cake, and spiced mint tea.
“Together,” writes Meghan, “is more than a cookbook. This is a tale of friendship, and a story of togetherness. It is a homage to the power of cooking as a community, and the recipes that allow us to connect, share and look forward.”
Together: Our Community Cookbook is available to pre-order at RoyalFoundation.com. All proceeds will support the Hubb Community Kitchen, helping it stay open and thrive.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.