Padre Robin Richardson blogs from Afghanistan about helping out with Christmas lunches, and being inspired to find out more about the life of an Army chef.
On Christmas Day, I got up much earlier than usual to go and help out in the kitchen. My early is, of course, normal for our chefs – and it was cold. I was put on the large flat grill, with bacon for the whole camp. There is no alcohol in theatre and so ‘gunfire’ for everyone at Shahzad was a bacon roll and a cup of tea. One of the young chefs, Jade, cooked bacon on the grill next to me. She was, as you would expect, faster and better, and when after half an hour of putting it on, turning it, popping it in a container to be kept warm in the oven and my back was feeling just a bit sore, Jade was just getting into her stride. Another packet deftly cut open and so it continued. After an hour and a quarter we were finished and the bacon roll I’d been waiting for since before six was just what was needed. Utter perfection – though I say so myself.
The Parachute Regiment Band flew six members into Shahzad later on in the morning, and so at midday we all got together at the front of the bullet-spattered building that we use as a headquarters and we sang Christmas Carols and heard the Christmas story right back from Isaiah’s prophecy through to Luke’s detailed account. Amongst the berets and issued warm kit there was the occasional Santa hat, and even one or two hand-knitted Christmas jumpers; a kind of sartorial rebellion that just added to the high spirits of the day. I spoke for a couple of minutes, and prayed for the injured and bereaved as well as for our families whom we were missing so much. But then my mind went back to the kitchen. All I did was cook some bacon – why did it seem like such big a deal? I had volunteered to help serve the Christmas lunch too, and so maybe I would get more of an idea of what was starting to nag at me a bit as I got stuck into that.
Lunch was on for two hours. I started serving soup and then carved some turkey. Two hours is a long time to be filling peoples’ plates; though having a bit of a chat with folks as they moved through was great and the cheerful and thankful comments I heard the blokes making to the chefs really warmed my heart. At the end of my stint, having had a couple of hours standing more or less stationary whilst serving, my aching feet gave me slightly more idea of what Arturo and his team in the kitchen have to do day in and day out. But I wanted to know more. How long is a chef’s day? How much time do they get off during it? There was only one thing for it – dive into the life of the kitchen for more than just one meal!
Sean, one of best men you could ever wish to meet, has been in the Army for 25 years and now as an officer, has overall control of what we call G4 for Shahzad. Where we live, what we eat, fuel, kit and the kitchen all fall under his watchful eye. He often goes and helps out behind the scenes in the cook tent, and the chefs really do appreciate his way of getting to know the folks who are working for him and the job they have to do, by doing it too. Sean and one of our Colour Sergeants, Stu, had breakfast covered on the day I was going to help, but I still needed to be in the kitchen for 9. Three willing volunteers meant that Jade, Collin, John and Kirk could have a well earned day off, with just Arturo, ever-watchful, guiding Sean, Stu and my time working with and for him. Sean’s spaghetti carbonara and Stu’s soup were already well under way when I started on the bread. I hadn’t kneaded bread for a long time, and I had forgotten what hard work it is and everything is bigger when you’re catering for hundreds and not just your family. Collin usually makes it and in a batch twice the size I was working with, and yet after ten minutes I was really feeling it! This cooking business was hard work and I was only an hour in.
Arturo was in control of everything, timing, ingredients, technique and seemed to effortlessly work round the two hot and several cold options that were slowly coming together. There was time for a quick cup of tea after an hour or so before the bread went into and then out of the oven and everything was put together for lunch. After lunch Arturo explained what was to be done for dinner; the soup made in the morning was also to be the base for a pasta bake and so forth. An hour to catch up on admin and then back into the tent to start work on four hot choices for dinner. I had barely had time to think before this next round of preparation started; garlic bread was needed – and was kneaded, and so another culinary workout began. We found out once we had started serving that about thirty of the lads were in the middle of a battle just a kilometre or so away. Arturo quietly told us that ‘whatever time they get back in, they’ll have their dinner.’ Plenty of each option was then carefully put aside with a level of care and concern well beyond the actual process and when the final dinners of those on camp had gone through, we waited. No one would leave the kitchen until everyone had been fed. I walked over to the ops room to find out how things were progressing. ‘They’ll be in in half an hour,’ was the answer I got, ‘and thank the chefs.’
Exhausted, and yet beaming the lads, still muddy from a tough afternoon washed their hands and had their plates filled with any combination of the food they wanted. Every one of them thanked us, and then went to tuck into their well-deserved dinner. We had managed to get most things tidied whilst we waited and so it didn’t take us long to finish up. Sean made sure that Arturo got the next day off, and I slept very well that night.
There is something quite wonderful in the relationship between the British soldier and our military chefs. Such care in preparation, presentation and understanding of what the lads have been going through on the part of the chefs, and from the soldiers, a real gratitude for the service and the mountains of food they receive three times a day, every day where there is a kitchen up and running. If we were able to get a kitchen and a chef into every location it would be brilliant because the difference men and women like Arturo, Kirk, Jade, Collin and John make to the morale and wellbeing of a group of people is astonishing. And one last thing; I’ve always appreciated the work of our chefs, but didn’t really understand how hard they work until I had a go, and even though it was for just one day, it made me think of just how many people I’ve met over the years who have had strong opinions, loudly expressed but have not had the opportunity to appreciate, even for just a short time, the lives the efforts, and the gifts of those they judge so readily.