“You’ve got to get there early though,” advises Hortensia about Café Nova, the charity-run venture where she has just started working. “We always sell out all the food we make and by two o’clock there’s often not much left to choose from.”
Having lived in Ladbroke Grove since 1991, and at Wornington Green for the past 14 years, it is only recently that Hortensia made the decision to return to work. With her two children now grown up, it seemed a great way to meet new people and become more involved in the community. So she spoke with an employment outreach officer from Catalyst Gateway, the charity arm of Catalyst Housing Group, to see how they could help.
It was when the outreach officer came round to visit that it became obvious what job she was best-suited to. “I’d been baking that morning,” says Hortensia, “and as soon as she tried some of my cooking she said that was what I should be doing. So she put me in touch with Café Nova and it all went from there. I went to meet Iris who runs the café, cooked something for her and started the following week.”
Drawing on her Dominican Republic roots, Hortensia’s cooking is rich in Caribbean flavours and styles. Fish, cooked in coconut and served with rice, peas and kidney beans is a favourite of her customers, as are empanadas – a vegetarian pasty of crushed potato mixed with vegetables, onion, tomato and cumin. “I’ve been cooking all my life, for my family, for events held by the Church I attend, for parties and working at the café is really just an extension of that,” she says.
Café Nova works hard to reflect the culture and tastes of the people that live in and around Ladbroke Grove, with the menu changing each day to feature a different cuisine. “I work there once a week, Monday is my day, and people know this. So as well as new customers each week, I also see regulars, who love Caribbean food and make sure to pop in every Monday. It’s a popular day, and that’s why we often run out of food.”
A fluent Spanish speaker from the first part of her life when she lived in the Dominican Republic, Hortensia is clearly proud of her culture and where she’s from, and her style of cooking is testament to this. Her passion for the Dominican Republic’s culture extends to sport, naming the victory of Félix Sánchez in the 400 metre hurdles, only the third gold medal in the country’s history, as her favourite moment of the London Olympic Games.
With an infectious chuckle and a clearly positive outlook on life, it’s no surprise that Café Nova sells out every Monday. With food that delicious being prepared by a person as passionate about it as Hortensia, wouldn’t you come back every week?
Interested in getting involved? Why not pop into Café Nova at 3 – 5 Thorpe Close, W10 5XL (above Portobello Green Fitness Club) and say hello.