Danny McCubbin ’82 describes himself as a food campaigner, and he occupies a unique intersection of the culinary sector where art, business, media, social change and gastronomy meet.
You may wonder what that means but it all makes sense when you look at the path he has taken. Start with his long-held belief that food can transform lives—starting with his own. It’s a fascinating journey that has seen him play a central role in building the restaurant, publishing, television and social media empire of one of the original and most renowned celebrity chefs, Jamie Oliver. At the same time, he has helped develop community and remedial social programs in the UK and Italy that have given hope and improved the lives of countless people, young and old.
Born and raised near Brisbane on Australia’s Gold Coast, Danny came from a food-oriented family. “My mom was a great cook,” he says. “We grew our own produce and we would pick vegetables and I’d watch her prepare dinner. My grandparents were dairy farmers not far away and I spent many hours there, too. I always had food at the heart of everything I did.”
He first left home to come to Lakefield as an exchange student for his final year before graduation. “I’d seen the brochure and it talked about the woods, cross-country skiing, sailing, and camping. I said, ‘I want to do that!’ It was the polar opposite of the Gold Coast but it was my first foray into seeing the world.”
Besides the fun, sports and academics, Lakefield was where Danny first explored his artistic bent. “They revere students with artistic talents as much as sports and other skills,” he says. “It set me on the right path.”
Danny got involved in theatre at Lakefield, and it brought out the magnetic personality that has become so much his trademark and a useful entree to his many experiences. He later studied at art school back in Australia and did a Masters in ceramics, but food and cookery were always his muses.
The urge to see the world led him to move to the UK. After a few years of temporary jobs, including a six-month stint as a project manager with IBM, he began to look for something permanent. A personal connection got him an interview in 2002 with the nascent organization behind Jamie Oliver, who had only recently broken onto the scene with his Naked Chef series.
“The celebrity was not the draw,” Danny says. “It was his restaurant, Fifteen, where he mortgaged his home and opened it to give jobs to underprivileged young people. I walked in and said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
The job was to work with Oliver on his brands, particularly building a website around Fifteen, which was a non-profit project at the time, and the social benefits of Oliver’s work. He got the job and the door blew wide open.
“I was very fortunate. The company was very small then and everyone got involved in all aspects of the business and brand-building.”
After working directly with Jamie Oliver for six months on the launch of a second website, he became Jamie’s personal assistant for four years. The timing couldn’t have been better. Jamie’s career was in full blastoff mode with lucrative contracts for cookbooks, television productions, media opportunities, endorsements, cookware branding, sponsorships, websites and social media all happening at once.
Danny was deeply involved in all of it, but he especially relishes the social campaigning experiences, with Jamie’s School Dinners initiative to get the UK government to spend more and improve the quality of meals served to school children at the forefront.
“I definitely started realizing my wider interests—things like community-based food projects, mentoring young people and engaging online with disadvantaged people and the organizations that could help them.”
Danny spent three more years working with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, promoting the concept of a better life through food, and then another two years as culture manager in what is now a much larger organization. “My job was to take care of the ethos of the business. We had to make sure 150 staff knew about Jamie’s campaigns and projects, bringing in key people from other parts of the organization. I had spent 15 years living and breathing it, so I was the right person for the job.”
Through his work but also on his own initiative, Danny delved more deeply into community work over the years. He ran events and workshops to help young people enter the hospitality industry and became the UK ambassador to the San Patrignano rehabilitation program in Italy, said to be the world’s most successful drug rehab community where 1,000 young people live and work in a 250-hectare setting to develop skills in winemaking, agriculture and hospitality.
But having thrown down European roots, when the UK voted to leave the European Community, Danny felt it was time to go. “As an Aussie with a British passport that gave me free access to Europe, I didn’t want that taken away. I wanted to be a part of Europe.”
He had set up a couple of community kitchens in churches in London working with food-based organizations to feed about a thousand homeless people a week. In 2020, with the UK transition to Brexit approaching and in the midst of the pandemic, Danny handed the kitchens over to local charities and took his leave.
“I took a leap of faith,” he says with a chuckle. He craved the pastoral life of rural Italy—“the ocean, the food, the landscape are very much like Australia”—and he chose the small, economically hard-hit town of Mussomeli in Sicily, with fifty percent unemployment. He bought a decaying one-euro house and set up a community kitchen on the town square. He feeds about 200 people each week, setting down roots in the town and drawing on local produce as much as possible. “A lot of the young people have nothing else to do so they come to help,” says Danny. “The older people come to watch. We cook for the community.”
He continues to run social media workshops and consultations for charities, NGOs and community-based projects to help them spread their messages, and he continues to speak at international conferences, recently in Brazil, on how food can be a force for change.
For now, the best example is what he’s doing in Mussomeli. “It brings together everything I learned with Jamie.”
Learn more about Danny by visiting his blog, Good for Good.
Written by: John Southerst