Involved with all aspects of food production, from planting seeds to harvesting fruit and vegetables and cooking or preserving them, the trainees at Colchester’s Level Best café have devised a delicious recipe for success.

Delicious, wholesome food and reasonably priced’, ‘staff always friendly and welcoming’, ‘a gem’. Doesn’t this sound like just the sort of community café you’d want in your home town? A place serving everything from ‘the best coffee’ plus crumpets with home-made jam at breakfast time, roast parsnip soup with house-baked sourdough bread and a salad of own-grown mizuna leaves picked that day for lunch? Or maybe a slice of freshly baked lemon drizzle is more your thing? As rave reviews from its customers attest, lucky Colchester has got a café that offers all this and more. It’s called Level Best.

Great British Life: The cafe team (Sophie Newbery seated at the front) The cafe team (Sophie Newbery seated at the front) (Image: Chris Douglas Photography)

Behind the café lies Essex charity The Dacon Trust, set up in the 1970s by a couple whose young son had learning difficulties. They opened a school for him in their Great Tey garden, other pupils joined him to study there, with the school going on to become a day centre once the students had grown up. From that initial idea, the social enterprise Level Best emerged, taking its name from its commitment to equality for all and its aim of seeing each individual achieve his or her potential. Today, as many as 65 young people a week, each with their own learning challenges, are involved as trainees in some or all of Level Best’s five areas of work: Gardening, Café, Seasonal, Catering, and Art (trainees opened a vibrant exhibition, Sunshine Coast, at Firstsite Gallery back in January – just what Colchester needed at that grey time of year).

Often referred by social services, trainee ages tend to range from 14 to 30 and they can come for a minimum of one session a week for six weeks, though most stay for longer. While the trainees are gaining experience in all sorts of areas, customers of course get to enjoy the results, whether its food to enjoy or art to appreciate. Explains Alison Ling, Level Best’s manager since 2011: ‘We charge a flat fee for the training, but we’re very flexible as to how we implement it, and most of our trainees are funded through social care. Because we cover a variety of areas, trainees can explore lots of options, finding out what they enjoy and where their skills lie.’

Great British Life: Anyone for a slice of freshly-baked cake? Anyone for a slice of freshly-baked cake? (Image: Chris Douglas Photography)

In April of last year, the Level Best hub moved from its previous location to a purpose-modified hub created around what had once been a butcher’s shop: (‘we did laugh at the irony given that ours is primarily a vegetarian café!’ says Alison). The new St John’s Street setting, closer to the heart of town, has proved a game-changer: ‘We have much more space now, so we can work with more young people and do more things.’

On site is not only the café, which seats around 50, but the kitchen, a jam-making room complete with stainless steel worktops and sterilisers, a gallery space that can be hired out, and art rooms where trainees can get creative.

Connie Van Helfteren runs the gardening part of the enterprise. She takes around six trainees a day, plus support staff, up to Level Best’s allotment a 15-minute walk away. There’s a polytunnel here, usually full of herbs and lots of tomato varieties, plenty of flower beds and something’s always growing, regardless of the time of year. ‘We don’t rely completely on the allotment for all the café’s dishes, so we can afford to be flexible and experiment,’ says Connie.

Great British Life: Just some of the seasonal bounty from the Level Best Allotment Just some of the seasonal bounty from the Level Best Allotment (Image: Chris Douglas Photography)

‘Often the growing process for us will start with looking through seed catalogues – what pictures appeal? What names do we like? That’s how we ended up growing Yin Yang beans, and Tromboncino squash, which look like vegetable saxophones – trainees love growing something different, and customers seem to love trying it on our menu.’

Other food is supplied not only by local producers, but via donations too. ‘Trainees’ families will send in stuff if they’ve grown a glut of, say, marrows, and we’ll use those in the kitchen. One woman emailed us to say, essentially, ‘this is my address – there’s a quince tree in my front garden – help yourselves’ and we did!’

Those quinces were used to make membrillo, which went down very well as part of Level Best’s Christmas-hamper offering, while the apples grown in the allotment’s mini orchard, along with soft fruits, rhubarb, onions for pickling and Seville oranges for marmalade are also used in the Seasonal side of the enterprise.

Great British Life: The chutneys are a winner with customers The chutneys are a winner with customers (Image: Chris Douglas Photography)Great British Life: Pickled onions are sold as part of Level Best's Seasonal produce range Pickled onions are sold as part of Level Best's Seasonal produce range (Image: Chris Douglas Photography)

‘Jam and chutney making is a large part of what we do,’ says Connie. ‘Trainees make on site – it’s creative and productive. We sterilise jars, then bottle up and because it’s seasonal, when it’s gone it’s gone - which is another part of the appeal for our customers.’

Sold within the café, the seasonal produce is so popular that apparently one customer buys each jam and keeps a notebook critiquing them: ‘Her husband tells us she has a double-doored cupboard full of them!’ says Connie.

Other popular seasonal items include rose syrup, and elderflower cordial. ‘We work closely with the wardens at Castle Park, picking elderflowers with them and we forage along the Wivenhoe Trail too.’

In the kitchens, meanwhile, it’s Sarah Herbert who overseas eight trainees, with three support staff helping them with recipe selection, knife skills and in ensuring that the standards that have earned them a 5-star food hygiene rating never slip. Outside of café hours, the team caters for one-off events, too, ranging from gallery openings, when artists make the most of Level Best’s gallery space, to weddings ‘We did all the food for a regular customer’s wedding recently, which was lovely,’ says Alison.

25-year-old trainee Sophie Newbery is clearly a natural for hospitality. She’s vivacious, friendly and stylish – the sort of person who can easily carrying off a sequin of a wet Wednesday afternoon. ‘Being here is good for my confidence,’ she says. ‘We do lots of different things and we like the customers, we’ll talk about ‘the one who loves our mushrooms,’ or ‘the one who loves the soup’.’

Great British Life: Staring with seeds, trainees at Level Best are involved in every part of the growing cycle. Staring with seeds, trainees at Level Best are involved in every part of the growing cycle. (Image: Level Best Enterprises)

It's clearly not just about learning skills but about relationship-building, too : ‘I met Shelby [a fellow trainee] here and we’ve a bond like no other,’ says Sophie. And is she more adventurous when cooking with her mum as a result of her Level Best work? ‘Yes. And I help a lot at home, too.’

Every trainee is regularly set goals as part of their Level Best experience, meaning that they’re continuing to develop their practical, sensory and social skills. Says Connie, ‘A trainee might have the goal to plant a seed, grow a tomato plant and keep it alive, harvest that tomato, cook with it and eat the end result – so they’re seeing the whole of the food cycle through. We’ll often have trainees’ families saying of their young people, ‘they’d never eat salad before – now they will do.’

Some trainees go on to work in hospitality elsewhere: ‘For instance, we’ve had a trainee who went on to get paid work as part of a supported team planting hedges in the county and someone else who went to work for a veteran’s club,’ says Alison. Others may stay at Level Best on a longer-term basis – with the term ‘traineeship’ not used to imply a limited amount of time in which to reach a goal, but, rather, to reflect the idea that all of us are always learning.

Always something new to learn, always something new to enjoy - that seems to be the unofficial mantra at Level Best, and it’s certainly one that’s keeping Colchester customers coming back for more.

Level Best Café is open Monday to Friday,

If you’re interested in working with Level Best as a volunteer or trustee, contact Alison Ling on