05 January 2012

lonely londoners at christmas...head chef for a day


Christmas this year was mostly not very Christmassy. It was the first year that I didn't see my family and spent it basically solo. There have been a few past years that I didn't make it to Arizona on the day and one year found me touring the south island of New Zealand but I still made it home by January 1st. That was OK...Christmas a week late is still Christmas. This year, however, I stayed in London the whole time. All housemates went to visit family and so I was all alone for a full five days. Knowing this might be a struggle, I signed up to work at Crisis at Christmas. I thought if I am going to choose to be alone on Christmas, I might as well share it with those that have no choice. Crisis opens ten temporary centres during Christmas to provide companionship and vital services to over 3000 homeless and vulnerably housed people in London.

These centres are open between 23-30 December and are run entirely by volunteers. The centres offer the basic comforts of food and warmth during the day in addition to services that can set guests up for the rest of the year and potentially transform their lives. These services include health services (dental, optometry, podiatry), skills training (IT, sewing), and advice (housing, careers). Several centres offer shelter for the most vulnerably housed, there is also a women's centre and a dependency centre.

I volunteered to work in the kitchen at the Deptford Centre. Deptford is one of the smallest centres and many of the volunteers and guests return year after year so it had a family-like atmosphere to it. As I was working in the kitchen, I only interacted with the guests during service but it was amazing to see the diversity of guests in terms of culture, age and appearance. You really cannot stereotype the homeless, it can affect a wide-range of different people.

Working in a kitchen like this was definitely unique and challenging. All food items were the result of donations mostly from big retailers: Waitrose, Sainsburys, Tesco and Harrods. Many requested items (including Turkeys) were provided but other items depend on availability and stock the day of donation. So menus are not planned, but are put together ready, steady, cook style the day of the meal.

When I arrived Christmas afternoon, the lunch service was in full action. There were home-made crackers and an amazing spread of the usual Christmas dishes. In the kitchen, three trained chefs led the show. These people were giving up days off to go back into a kitchen and provide for those who need it most! I learned to bone a chicken and then practiced the new skill on about 15 more!

The third day I worked, I arrived at 7am to find only three of us in the kitchen and no head chef. While the three of us prepared breakfast, I suggested we also consider lunch. As I was taking inventory of available items, the shelter manager for the day asked if I would be head chef...so with a simple “uh sure” a very challenging day commenced.

I didn't really have a chance to get scared. Two of us immediately began defrosting 15 big packets of mince beef. I then cooked up two big vats of chilli (mince, tinned tomatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, onion, kidney beans, oregano and chilli powder) served with rice, sweet corn, salad, tomato soup, bread and butter, and two massive apple crumbles (thrown together with apples, muesli, sugar, cinnamon and a random jar of ginger preserves) that served 75 guests with no leftovers!

It was a great experience and I highly recommend getting involved if you are interested. Crisis offers Level 2 Kitchen Hygiene Certification to all its kitchen volunteers. This is a bonus...the real reward is the challenge of cooking in this environment and the opportunity to meet other people donating their time during the holidays. It left me with the warm and fuzzy feeling that Christmas is all about. If you cannot volunteer you can also donate any leftover pennies to help next years Crisis for Christmas be as successful as this one. I have set up a page if you would like to donate here.

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