Life at Wembley before the lockdown was busy.
We were revved up to do the two England games in March, and we had the various Cup games in the following months with all the menu tastings of 190 individual dishes ready for the hospitality and Club Wembley members. .
All of the menus were set up, we'd had a lot of menu tastings, and all of that work was pretty much flat out and completed. And then the lockdown came, so like lots of people, I was furloughed and away I went.
I live in Watford with my family and there was a call to arms from the NHS, who were struggling at the local General Hospital, so I went and joined as an NHS volunteer.
When I got there, they saw some of my skills and I ended up sorting out the food for the eight COVID-19 wards onsite. My job was to sort out the food donations that were coming in and to ensure that it was evenly and safely distributed to the wards. Soon after, Watford FC opened its doors to help us with supplies, so I started working with them too.
Watford FC gave us enough space to organise all the donations being sent in and it was incredible as the amount that arrived was enough to fill our own Bobby Moore Restaurant and more. Watford FC soon took on the mantle of feeding staff from their stadium and offered their spaces for staff respite and continued to do so until last week when they started to wind down.
One of the bits of food that was coming in to Saracens was labelled from Compassion London, a group of professional chefs, foodies and volunteers who have come together to cook and deliver delicious, nutritious meals for those who need them the most.
So it was funny how I saw that on the label and then received a call from the FA saying that Compassion London were looking to come to Wembley and asked if I would be interested in helping to run the kitchen operation. I came in for a couple of meetings and everyone was keen for it to go ahead if we could make it work, so we took it on.
The kitchens transformed from doing normal food for the stadium – 90,000 meals across hospitality and concessions – to going into a factory production.
The food that arrives at the back door is predominantly made up of donations from various suppliers and my job is to have a look at it when it arrives and try to assemble it into some sort of menu – a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook on a mammoth scale!
We needed an average of 5000 individual meals every day, with a choice of meat or vegetarian, all labelled and dispatched.FIND OUT MORE ABOUT WEMBLEY STADIUM
Normally I'd see what’s coming in from the loading bay around 9am each day. On the first day we had ten sacks of onions, seven pallets of pasta, 30 sides of smoked salmon, half a pallet of venison.
On another day we had four pallets of rice, 400 boxes of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines, ideal for the vegetarian option. On another day, we had 20 boxes of turkey leg so a good turkey curry was made and then we had 80 boxes of chorizo sausage that were made down into a casserole as well as a sausage biryani. All the meals were bulked out to make a good 300g portion with chickpeas, couscous or rice.
The finished food would go out each morning when a refrigerated wagon came to collect it and then a fleet of vehicles would pick it up and send it on its way around London – to the NHS, to vulnerable people and to care homes.
That’s 8000 meals going out to people who don’t get a meal, who are either starving or go to bed without a hot meal and that’s an achievement in itself, but what’s incredible for me is the people – those in the kitchen.
While the big piece of this is about FOOD to the vulnerable, it cannot be done without dedicated PEOPLE who have volunteered their time for this charity to make it such a success.
We had lawyers, solicitors, airline navigators, airline stewardesses, mums, dads, opticians, a plumber, a tree surgeon, an event coordinator, chefs, West Ham’s chef, a builder – so the whole place was made up with all sorts of people from different backgrounds to bring this team together.
So it was really very much a team together and we made the menus simple and the professional guys really put the food together and then everybody else is involved in packing, labelling and distribution.
All of the head chefs who normally work with me at Wembley came along to support me, along with Clean Event, our normal cleaners who volunteered to come in and clean.
I’m very lucky that we had a team like this – they all came in for the month that we’ve been doing this and they’ve been stalwarts in getting these meals out. I’ve also met people at the FA that I’ve never seen before in my life and I’ve been here for three years! But I have to say, each and every one of them has been brilliant, outstanding. They have made it possible and it’s been great to see another side of the FA team.
We had about 70 volunteers a day, but out of them we only lost four, so over a month I think we’ve done very well. Keeping people motivated is always a challenge – especially if they’re in the pan wash! So we did a bit of rotation, people spending an hour here or there and then changing around. I tried to foster a working regime that I like to work in – no screaming or shouting, just keeping things harmonious. It’s amazing that people give up their time to come in work for this fascinating charity that is giving people who need it something to eat.
By the time Compassion London have moved out, we’ll have done over 150,000 meals. That’s not a number to be sniffed at. We might not have scored a goal on the pitch, but we’ve scored a goal in a different way.
What’s next for me after Compassion London? When I’m not doing head of culinary, I’m a Toast Master or Master of Ceremonies. I’ve got two funerals where I’m the celebrant, and then two socially-distanced weddings – so I’m trying to work out how I do those.
I’ll also be doing some work for the NHS – I used to teach Samaritans throughout my career and they’re experiencing a few mental health issues with some of the volunteers. This period has been a bit of a strain on some of them, so I’m going to do a workshop with them. This is the first time this has happened to me too, but I spent 34 years in the military, and having been out in Bosnia, Afghanistan and places like that, you get some idea of what lockdown is and the struggles involved in coming out of it. Basically, it’s listening to them and, with the NHS, trying to help them understand how they move forward and get back to normal life.
And then of course, it looks like some behind-closed-doors football is on the horizon. I would imagine there would be a small amount of food to be done – more like crew catering rather than hospitality – but we’ll keep ticking over like that until we restart at Wembley. I have no doubt in my mind that we will restart, and I imagine next year will be a bumper year.CLUB WEMBLEY: CORPORATE EVENTS