West Suffolk Hospital staff preparing to cook up a tasty Christmas
Struggling with the thought of timing Christmas dinner to perfection? Hoping you remember the gravy, and avoid singed spuds and soggy sprouts?
Then just imagine cooking 80 kilos of roast potatoes, 60 kilos of Brussells sprouts, up to 25 turkeys, hundreds of portions of pudding and gallons of custard.
Add in home-made nut roast for vegetarians and vegans, plus special meals for people on restricted diets.
Welcome to the kitchens of West Suffolk Hospital where on December 25 they will cook more Christmas dinners than almost anywhere else in the county.
They will dish up at least 600 for patients and staff. Head chef Luke Nobbs says the key - whether for a family meal or a massive operation like the hospital - is organisation.
“Get your timings right and prepare as much as you can in advance,” is his advice.
Their planning begins with mince pies, which are so popular staff buy them to take home.
“This year we’ve made 6,000,” said Luke. “We start in August, freeze them, then cook them fresh in batches. All the pastry is made here.”
Every day the kitchen turns out three meals for all patients in the 450-bed hospital. It also provides the food for the staff restaurant and visitors’ cafe.
“Eighty-five percent of the patients’ menu is cooked here. That’s quite unusual for the size of hospital we are,” said Luke.
On Christmas day the first shift will arrive at 6.30am and work until after lunch, when the late shift takes over.
Assistant head chefs Kim Gaze and Dennis Kennard, who both joined the hospital seven years ago, will be on duty on the day.
Kim, from Stowmarket, has been a cook at Culford School, and came to the West Suffolk from the Tollgate pub in Bury.
“I love doing Christmas here - there’s a great atmosphere. We’re a good team and that’s what it’s all about.
“People don’t want to be in hospital so we try to make their time here as nice as possible. It’s very rewarding because we know we are helping the patients to recover.”
For Dennis it will be his sixth working Christmas. “I have kids, but a lot of people have older family to look after as well so it’s good to let them have the day off. I’m with my family in the afternoon.”
He has been in catering since leaving school but believes he has now found his ideal job. “I’m planning to stay here till I retire,” he says.
Making the food look tempting is vital. “We try to make it as presentable and tasty as possible. If you’re not very well, you might only fancy a bit of mash with some peas, but we still try to make it look good.”
Eighty people work full-time in the catering department, with more coming in part-time.
Catering supervisor Keith Reid has been there 23 years and worked 22 Christmas Days. “I missed one, and I hated it,” he says.
“My previous job was in a tree nursery. I came here as a temporary catering assistant. It was only meant to be for six months, but I thought, why am I leaving when I like it so much?”
Everything in the kitchen is on a vast scale, from 5ft long “bats” used for stirring, to the massive pans where they cook the breakfast porridge which is renowned for its creamy texture.
Luke says there is no secret recipe although it could be to do with boiling it for 20 minutes in large quantities.
A hundred portions of lamb curry are bubbling in one enormous container. Beside it, swede, leek and thyme sizzle before the meat is added for a casserole. Another cauldron holds 250 helpings of lentil soup.
Vegetables are bought pre-prepped and frozen. “It would take too much time to do them all here,” said Luke.
By mid-morning fresh salads have been plated up, as well as countless sandwiches. Blocks of cheese are piled beside an enormous grating machine - they get through 120 kilos a week.
Spiced apple and raisin pies are turning golden in the oven. “We do traditional home-made puddings that make the patients happy,” Luke says.
An area of the kitchen is set aside for preparing special diets including gluten-free, low-potassium, and soft food for people with swallowing problems.
Around 11.30am they begin the complex task of dishing up patients’ lunches, a ward at a time, following the menu choices. The food is stacked into a “hot lock” trolley that keeps it warm.
The department, which also produces a variety of meals and snacks for the restaurants, has a Suffolk County Council Eat Out, Eat Well award, and a Soil Association award for sustainable catering.
Luke, who joined 16 years ago, was appointed head chef this year. “I started off scrubbing pots and pans, and moved on to become a chef.”
He is always looking for new ideas, and will soon be launching afternoon tea for patients.
Brodrick Pooley, facilities manager for catering and communities, said: “We have such a brilliant team in the catering department. I would like to thank them all for the hard work they do each and every day.
“I’m really proud of the service we provide and like to think we make any hospital stay, not just at Christmas, that bit easier for patients by providing them good, high-quality, tasty food.”