Chef Rob | Cooking in the Ashram part I
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Cooking in the Ashram part I

Cooking in the Ashram part I

So, years ago in a past life I studied law. Am I the only chef with a law degree? I don’t know but whilst I was at uni I met a guy called David Kraft. We have remained very good friends ever since. So, over the summer when the image of the Syrian baby washed up on the beach was broadcast on the news, David found himself shouting at the TV and determined to do something practical to help this desperate situation.

So, he asked a few friends to join him on a charitable trip to Calais to help with the refugees. I agreed to join him. Helping to cook is the first thing I thought of for obvious reasons.

So that’s how the trip came about. Dave did a crowd funding page, raised about £1700, we picked a date and booked our trip. Along came two other friends Tom Southern and Waleed Ghani. Dave selected the team but he couldn’t have picked a better crew for the mission. The four of us got along like a house on fire and worked incredibly well together.

As the trip drew closer I realised that our original plan of setting up our own kitchen was turning into a logistical nightmare. I suggested that we make contact with another kitchen already in operation in the jungle thinking we could maximise space in the van for supplies. Dave managed to make contact with Ian who runs the Ashram Kitchen and we agreed to bring some supplies with us that were troublesome to source, namely fresh ginger (8 cases) fresh greens (10 cases) and rice (100kg)

As this was our first trip, in all honesty we could have planned the timings to coincide a bit better with the food service times in the Ashram. It’s a learning experience. A fact finding mission. We weren’t quit sure what to expect. So when we arrived on the Monday afternoon we’d missed service but we jumped in and helped with washing the dishes and the general clear up.

There were a few British volunteers in the kitchen as well as some Kurdish volunteers who live in the Jungle. As we washed up we started to attempt conversation. I made the mistake of asking a Kurdish guy whether he was here with his family or not? He told me the horrific fate that had befallen them and I quickly decided not to ask anyone else about theirs.

My first impressions were that cooking in these conditions was going to be a hell of a challenge. Unlike the kitchens I’m used to the floor was filthy, there was no running water either hot or cold. There were no sinks. The cooking facilities consisted of some camping stoves resting on pallets on the floor. It was a health and safety night mare. “How many we feeding in here tomorrow?” I asked. “About 600 or more if we can” came the reply from one of the British Volunteers. Right then.

Ashram rangeWe cleaned up, secured all the equipment and headed out of the camp back to our digs for the night.

The next day we arrived at 9am keen to get stuck in. It became apparent that I was going to have to improvise a lot to make this happen. There wasn’t enough chopping boards. Or work benches. I asked a flustered Lizzie what needed doing, told her I was a chef and got started peeling some ginger for the Chai, a kind of tea popular with our Kurdish diners. I later learned that Lizzie was flustered because there was a shipping container arriving to secure all of the kitchen equipment over night. The kitchen had been broken into several times and various bits had gone missing which makes the tasks even more challenging. As the shipping container arrived and they were trying to manoever it into position in the mud outside, I suggested that Lizzie go and supervise that as by then I felt I had things under control. I have never seen someone so happy to see a shipping container in all my life. She had tears in her eyes and was jumping up and down for joy. I looked around at the situation and started to understand what this would mean for them. It was quite a touching moment.

container deliverySo, then we were heading into breakfast service at 11am. That’s a bit late for a normal breakfast service but most of our residents spent the night scrambling around the Eurotunnel entrance trying to board vehicles bound for England, and returning to the jungle at sunrise. 11am started making a bit more sense. By 10.45am an excited queue could be heard getting roudy outside the tent. The volunteer at the door Chris was shouting “LINE!!”. Someone whispered to me that Kurds don’t like queuing as much as us Brits but there were so many of them that there was a real need for some sort of order. ‘Glad I’m not on that job’ I thought, still slightly intimidated by the whole experience.

By 11am we were ready to go. We were serving a slice of bread, some scrambled eggs, a cup of Chai and a piece of fruit. Today it was apples. As the Chai had to be dished up with a ladle, I offered to do that bit and arranged my baskets of donated mugs cups, glasses and beakers next to my big pot of Chai.

Feeding refugeesWhen our diners arrived the first thing that really struck me was how tired they all looked. Looking around outside on the way in there is no wonder why. Tents pitched in muddy conditions, battered and torn by the winds. I can’t imagine how it would be possible to get any sleep let alone a good night’s worth. As the line came in I was impressed at how quickly they could get these meals served. We didn’t have 600 cups plates or sets of cutlery so then the wash up area got very busy. Difficult to wash without sinks, but there wasn’t any hot water either. We managed by heating large pans of water on the stoves but it was always a struggle between heating water and cooking the food. Stove space was at a premium here.

The odd person would pick up a large mug and ask me to fill it with Chai. No way pal, I got hundreds more behind you, but I’d always give in if they insisted because I knew they were so hungry. I didn’t have the heart to dig my heels in too much. The line kept coming and coming. Scrambled eggs were being cooked to order and a few times the line would just come to a standstill as we waited for the next batch to be finished.

After maybe an hour or so I could see that the queue didn’t really seem to be diminishing as rapidly as my big pan of Chai. I turned to Lizzie standing next to me and told her I didn’t think I had enough. She looked in my big pan and then looked at me and said, ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ ‘Ah, so it’s a wigig then’. I said. It’s a phrase we use in the catering industry when you are running out of something during a normal restaurant service.

Then the penny dropped. I suddenly realised that I was going to have to tell someone who’d been queuing in the cold for quite some time that we had ran out and that person, and everyone else behind him were going to have to do without. It was probably the first time I found myself getting quite choked up. Worse still I could almost identify that person in the queue as I looked into my now nearly empty pan. I can honestly say I have never felt anything like that before. It was absolutely heart breaking.

Before long we had also ran out of bread and apples too. The last few people who came through were still able to get some bread and jam but no tea or apple. It was all a bit gutting.

By the end of breakfast service I think Lizzie had gained a little confidence in my abilities so I agreed to take charge of making sure the evening meal was prepared and ready on time so that Lizzie could set to work arranging the shipping container and getting some things inside it. We emptied the van at that point and brought in all of the food that we had brought.

The evening meal was to consist of rice and curried dahl (many were vegetarians so it was easier and cheaper to keep the Ashram a vegetarian kitchen) I decided to add some sauteed spring cabbage into the mix using some of the cabbage that we brought.

to be continued…

  • ana

    Tks for sharing Rob… to read this through your eyes and your heart will make it more real for everyone. Well done to the team and tks for having gone! xx

    December 3, 2015 at 12:50 am
  • Great writing Rob. I’ve not spotted your blog before. I’ll keep an eye out for posts now. Kiron.

    December 26, 2015 at 11:17 am

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