Season’s eatings

From handmade gingerbread houses to choristers singing for their supper, Christmas time is when the catering experts shine, writes Simon Fry

While the traditional image of Christmas dinner is of the family gathered together on 25 December, the reality for caterers is of serving festive food and drink across the holiday lead-up. Bespoke refreshments enhance gatherings throughout December and while children’s considerations come first, parents, staff and even choir members’ needs have to be accommodated – and let’s not forget the furniture …

Christmas is one of the busiest times for the Independents by Sodexo teams as they gear up for festive meals, staff parties and carol concerts. As a leading provider of food services and hospitality to many of the country’s best independent schools, Sodexo chefs begin work several months in advance to create Christmas menus and recipes.

Independents by Sodexo’s executive development chef, Tom Allen, explains the approach: “Every school likes to have a special Christmas lunch for all staff and students, so a lot of work goes into getting the menus right for those events. We like to offer the traditional turkey, but also create bespoke alternative dishes – for example, duck roulade and herb-crusted fillet of cod.”

Such fresh thinking is also manifested in making one of Christmas lunch’s less popular ingredients more appetising: “We face the usual dilemma of how to encourage pupils to tuck into Brussels sprouts, which many children (and adults!) tend to turn their noses up at. To persuade our students to give their Brussels a try we will be serving them with crispy pancetta, or sliced and sautéed with garlic and cream.”

Other elements of the Christmas food and drink smorgasbord receive special treatment by Independents by Sodexo. “In addition to the traditional set-piece Christmas dinner, our chefs will be busy preparing for staff parties and other events,” says Tom Allen. “We have developed signature recipes for eggnog, shortbread biscuits and, of course, mince pies, which we make in every school. While Christmas is a busy and logistically challenging time, our chefs really enjoy the opportunity to showcase their skills and passion for food.”

To help create a buzz throughout the festive period, Sodexo is running a number of activities and competitions for pupils, including tracking Santa, through which younger pupils can win little snowman toys. For older students, the team has produced a golden ticket competition with iTunes vouchers as prizes.

Inclusivity is similarly important at the Brookwood Partnership, which even ensures those working on Christmas Day can join in the festive feasting. Donna Franklin, head of food at the Brookwood Partnership, says: “As caterers for a variety of independent schools across the country we have to cater for different cultures and faiths as well as for those with food intolerances throughout the year so, for us, Christmas is just another day. With our overseas students we look to create meals they know and recognise. With most schools closed over Christmas, the traditional Christmas fare is presented in the days leading up to the end of term. However, we do have employees working on Christmas Day. This includes Westminster Abbey Choir School. Once the choristers have finished the day’s services they sit down to a well-deserved Christmas lunch.”

Not surprisingly, the preparation for such catering starts well in advance. “Menu planning for Christmas takes place weeks, even months before the actual day, especially when you’re catering for up to 45,000 pupils across all sites. Each year we run a competition where our employees will suggest a Christmas-themed dish which we roll out across the company. This offers our chefs not only a chance to be creative, but also a chance to showcase their speciality dish to others. This year’s competition is to create a ‘milk- and egg-free Christmas dessert’, which is also supporting our communications around the new allergen legislation coming into effect in December. When making the Christmas pudding, many of our chefs will ask each pupil in the school to stir it and make a wish, which is quite fun and engages the pupils in the lead-up to Christmas. This year, our teams are making a homemade gingerbread person for every child to take home as a gift from us after their Christmas lunch.”

It’s not just those enjoying the final results who look forward to Christmas’s special catering – those in the kitchen also relish the revelry, according to Kevin Hopper, general manager, client services, independent education, Harrison Catering Services. “Christmas dinner is one of the most popular meals in our independent schools, due to the menu and to it being a real event and celebration. The great thing about working in independent schools is it isn’t just one lunch service to mark the festive season and then it’s over. You’re also preparing suppers for boarding students, as well as those other students staying onsite for evening activities, and these evening meals are even more popular. The independent school environment provides us as caterers with great opportunities to expand the celebration and make the most of the season over several days.”

With Christmas celebrated globally, Harrison Catering Services’ offerings are similarly diverse – sometimes with input from pupils. “While a traditional menu is always popular (Harrison serve more than 18,000 turkey portions at Christmas time), we also work with our schools to support the educational element by offering a taste of what Christmas is like in different countries and cultures around the world. For example, an Asian-themed holiday menu may feature a turkey roulade with Asian-spiced stuffing with parsley crumbs and lemongrass gravy. A European theme week might feature a different dish from a different country every day. This approach also helps us to engage with the international students at our schools, gathering their input about how Christmas is celebrated in their homelands, which we can reflect on our menus, helping our schools give these students a ‘home away from home’ feeling. In some schools, we have even had students bring in their own family recipes and help prepare them for festive celebrations.”

An impressive array of delicacies for Yuletide functions provides eye-catching and delicious finishing touches. “We also support our schools’ Christmas fairs and markets, providing items like mulled wine kits, specialist brandy butters, cranberry sauce and chutneys, Christmas muffin mixes, fudge and even ‘make your own gingerbread house’ kits for sale to parents, staff and visitors. Like our meals, these items are homemade onsite from fresh ingredients by Harrison’s skilled catering teams. Our staff will further showcase their advanced skills by creating elaborate gingerbread houses as centrepieces of the holiday celebrations, which are either enjoyed by the students at the end of term or in some cases auctioned off to raise money to support the school’s designated charity.”

Flexible thinking can be implemented to allow schools to think big, with spectacular results. “Our catering teams really do go all-out to make the holidays special for the students. At one school where students are spread across more than one dining hall, our team decided to bring the entire school together for Christmas dinner by moving to the sports hall, which they transformed with a marquee, fully laid tables, Christmas music and a tree. The team then served 450 students and staff a three-course meal at their tables.”

Having the right banqueting furniture helps ensure the smooth running of such large-scale catering. Gopak Ltd, established in 1954, has an unrivalled 60 years’ experience in the design, manufacture and supply of high-quality practical and lightweight furniture, such as aluminium-framed folding tables, in which it leads the market. It also offers a wide selection of table and chair ranges to suit numerous occasions. All its folding table and stacking benches are manufactured to BS EN ISO 9002:1994 for quality assurance and come with a five year guarantee.

Whether staging a Nativity play, carol concert or Christmas fair, this family-owned furniture manufacturer and supplier offers a range of Ultralight Staging Systems, Stacking Banqueting Chairs and Contour Folding Tables.

Firm favourites with schools for many years, the versatile, lightweight and spacious Contour Folding Table is ideal for Christmas fairs. As well as having an attractive finish, it is also water-resistant, ensuring the inevitable spillages from craft making, face-painting or food-related activities can be quickly and easily cleaned up.

Gopak’s portable and compact Ultralight Staging System is perfect for schools putting on plays and concerts. Quick and easy to use, assembly requires only one person while its individual lightweight components come together to form an impressively strong stage capable of supporting a uniform distributed load of 1000kg/m2, bringing peace of mind about your performers’ safety.

With such popular school traditions attracting increasing numbers of relatives and friends, Gopak also offers a complete range of stackable banqueting chairs offering the perfect combination of comfort, ease-of-use and stylish aesthetic.

No matter what your needs are this Christmas, Gopak has the furniture to ensure school activities are met with a chorus of approval.

Irrespective of Santa bringing you what you want on Christmas Day, enlisting the experts will ensure the perfect delivery at this festive time.

Sodexo W: www.uk.sodexo.com
Brookwood Partnership W: www.brookwood-ptnrs.com
Harrison Catering Services W: www.harrisoncatering.co.uk
Gopak W: www.gopak.co.uk

 

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