Boxing Day curry and the feeding of the 4,000 at Crisis

Every Christmas, homeless charity Crisis turns surprise ingredients, volunteer chefs and a lot of enthusiasm into dinner for over 4,000 people.

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For Lisa Calmiano, Christmas starts in January. While you’re still recovering from the 2015 celebrations, she’ll already be thinking about how to make next year even better. Lisa is the catering services organiser for the Christmas operation of the homeless charity Crisis; as such, she feeds the 4,000 over the festive period – and she doesn’t even get to pass out on the sofa afterwards.

Instead, Lisa tells me: “We do a debrief with the chefs and key kitchen volunteers pretty much immediately, while everything’s still fresh in everyone’s minds, and in February and March I start the wish-list.”

Then, and only then, it’s time to “take a bit of a break” until things get going again in August. Lisa’s idea of a break is somewhat different from mine, given that she fits her work with Crisis around a full-time job as a management consultant.

Like many of the helpers, she initially signed up for the minimum two shifts, but then, “It’s like a bug that catches you and you just keep coming back for more and more.” Eight years on, she’s running its largest service.

This involves not only sourcing the ingredients for three meals a day for a week (including some 7,200 mince pies) but storing and then distributing them to the temporary centres set up by Crisis in schools and colleges, so that by the time the first guests arrive on the night of 22 December everything is ready to go. It’s not just turkey and trimmings, either.

“We get a really generous donation of fish every year,” Lisa says, “and we’ll often try and serve that on the 24th” – as is the custom in eastern Europe. The team will also send out boxes of pierogies – eastern European dumplings – on the same day to centres with a high concentration of guests that might appreciate them. The general ethos, however, is “hearty comfort food, warming and traditional”.

Potatoes always go down well – it doesn’t matter how they do them: roast, mash, cottage pie – and the Boxing Day curry is a Crisis tradition. But the menu at each centre is largely down to the volunteers. “All the chefs love that creative element. I sometimes say it’s like Ready Steady Cook on an enormous scale.” These chefs are a mixture of culinary professionals (who tell her that the excitement of fellow helpers and guests makes it a refreshing change from the day job) and complete amateurs, in keeping with the ethos of Crisis at Christmas. “It is a volunteer-run organisation,” Lisa says, “and that gives the kitchens a really nice feeling.”

Just as well, given that no one ever quite knows what ingredients they’ll have to work with, how many volunteers will turn up, or even how many people they’ll be serving. “But whatever happens,” says Calmiano, laughing, “we’ll always get a meal out the door. That’s a given.”

What is also a given is the pleasure these meals give to guests and volunteers alike. “We get a lot of feedback about how much people have enjoyed coming together to eat. It’s such a normal thing to do that we take it for granted, but I think it’s one of the main reasons people come in.”

Lisa herself will spend Christmas morning doing the rounds of the London centres with a refrigerated van full of last-minute treats donated on 24 December, before stealing a couple of hours in which to see her family – “And then I come back and say, ‘Right, let’s think about Boxing Day.’”

There’s no doubt that it’s exhausting, but Lisa insists she wouldn’t do it if she didn’t get a huge buzz out of it. “It’s such a world away from management consultancy. It really makes you think about what’s important in life.”

In fact, her enthusiasm is so catching that, after getting off the phone, I sign up, too.

To find out more about donating to, volunteering for, or attending Crisis at Christmas, visit: crisis.org.uk

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special