It’s a typical Christmas scene- you’re standing in a manic kitchen, peeler in hand, with what feels like hundreds of mouths to feed yet you’ve still cooked enough turkey to feed everyone three times. However, for the volunteers and chefs working behind the scenes in the kitchens at Crisis at Christmas, there is no such thing as too much turkey when there are thousands of homeless people to cook three meals a day for. In the week between Christmas and New Year the industrial kitchens at each Crisis centre are filled with a diverse cohort of volunteers of different ages, races and professions, all tirelessly working to prepare the food that is given to those helped by the Crisis organisation.

The Crisis charity opens centres in North, South, East and West London (as well as in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Coventry and Birmingham) to provide immediate help to those experiencing homelessness at Christmas time. Their website states that the rough sleeping levels in London have increased by 132% since 2010 and the Christmas centres are one of the many ways in which this concerning issue is being tackled. The centres also help those who are may not be on the streets but are still without a home, living in temporary accommodation or on a sofa a.k.a. the hidden homeless. A total of at least 4700 homeless people are expected visit the Christmas centres this year all of whom will be fed from huge quantities of donated food, transformed into filling hot meals by the Crisis volunteers.

Adam Coumbe, who regularly volunteers as a kitchen hand for a London Crisis centre in the Christmas period, described the goings on in the kitchens.

“The quantities are mind boggling. There are sinks full of sprouts, 20 sacks of potatoes, carrots, parsnips and about 20 turkeys too.”

Of course, this is just for one meal. Accompanying these meals, the catering team serves lashings of pudding washed down with litres of tea, coffee and soft drinks.

“During a shift, you spend the 8 hours simply following instructions from the chef, chopping vegetables, grating cheese and whatever else needs doing.””

In regard to the actual meals prepared, things are usually kept simple. Of course, traditional turkey dinner is served on Christmas Day, but other British classics are said to be popular such as bangers and mash or bacon butties. Broccoli soup was served one year and was unsurprisingly less well-received.

“Ironically this year I was frying bacon on mass and I’m vegetarian.”

The challenging operation is run by a professional chef who directs the volunteers and, although they have undertaken a training course earlier in the year, they may not be familiar with the kitchen environment at all. The menu is also entirely dependent on what donations come in and their quality therefore adding unpredictability into the mix. Problems arise not only with ingredients but with the equipment itself. Teams have been known to deal with ovens breaking, flooded floors and power cuts. The head chef steers the ship all day, all week and takes the logistical challenge in his stride.

It is hot, exhausting, relentless work and hardly the way many people would want to pass the festive season, yet hundreds of people put themselves forward each year.

“There are lots of students and young people as well as older volunteers. I’ve seen whole families come along too.”

There is a wide range of volunteers in the kitchens, all with different motives behind giving their time. Some would otherwise be spending Christmas alone, some do not celebrate Christmas at all and some are simply fed up with the overindulgence and commercialism during the holiday season and want to do something less self-centred instead.

However unpleasant the smells are and however tired you may be after completing a shift, the benefits that come from helping out in this way are priceless. The satisfaction from participating in something worthwhile on what would otherwise be a self-indulgent day is immense. There is a real sense of comradeship between the volunteers which creates relationships that span beyond the inside of the kitchen.

“I’ve made friends with the people who return each year- we’ve kept in touch.”

By simply peeling some vegetables, you are improving the quality of another person’s life and giving them a Christmas to enjoy. There couldn’t possibly be a better present.

Kate Norton Bromley High School