Refugee Community Kitchen, Calais

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My friend Audrey Gillan suggested we should volunteer at the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. Who as part of a larger network in L’Auberge Des Migrants cook up to 2000 hot meals everyday to refugees stuck in the infamous camp in Calais known as “The Jungle”. We’d batted the idea around for months, the heart willing but minds and bodies experiencing the kind of inertia that by each passing day makes resolution more and more difficult. It took an unusual burst of energy, a “now or never” attitude, 3 days of frenetic planning and stuffing my Volvo full of donations that found us driving to the door of the French warehouse on Sunday May 1st. We met some amazing people in the two days helping in the kitchen and cooked a vast amount of food. In the end seeing the happy faces of the refugees eating the meals we cooked was ample reward for our small endeavour.

Audrey is a fantastic writer and wrote a short piece about our trip which I’ve included in full at the end of this post. To change any of her words would be futile! We both took photos and the full album can be found on this Google+ album link.

I’ve had such fantastic feedback from people here in Birmingham that I’m going to do it all again. This time with my buddy, local food hero and good egg Dom Clarke of Peel & Stone Bakery. We’re going Sunday 12th June so if you wish to make any donations please contact us for details. Email lap@thefoodist.co.uk or domjclarke@gmail.com

JustGiving page link here

We’re borrowing a bakery van for this trip so there’s plenty of room and we hope you can be super generous. Cash donations are great as we can bulk buy spices, onions, garlic etc but all donations are welcome. Thank you for all your support. Here’s a list of the food needed by RCK:

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So over to Auds to tell you about our last trip and the good work done by RCK in Calais:

The sun is shining as we pull our Volvo – packed to the roof with donations – into the front compound of L’Auberge des Migrants International Charity Warehouse less than a mile away from the refugee camp now known as the Jungle.

Lap-Fai Lee and I left my house in Spitalfields at 630am having filled the car with £520 worth of spices, onions, garlic, ginger and huge amounts of fresh herbs. The smell of mint, coriander and parsley was amazing but ultimately it was drowned out by the bullying bag of dried fenugreek leaves with its intense methi fragrance. We bought other things like oil, teabags, sugar, salt, sponges and scrubbers. Lap also had boxes of individually-donated goods picked up from his drop-off point in Birmingham, the Loaf Bakery.

As soon as we pulled off the ferry we drove the short distance to the warehouse where we were welcomed with smiles and excited volunteers, hugely relieved to see such a giant refill of goods that they were becoming perilously low on. Once this was unloaded, we were taken to the kitchen to meet head chef Pol and his trusty sidekick Viv. They had just wiped it down after the morning’s work – lunch had been dispatched in vans to the Jungle and the other camp half an hour up the road at Dunkirk.

We took a tour of the vast warehouse, thronging over the bank holiday weekend with more than 150 volunteers. Many were ‘weekend warriors’ like us, here for just a few days to work as hard as we can, but an unbelievable amount are there for the long haul, some for weeks, but others, like Pol, for months. None of these people are paid – no salaried admins, directors, buyers – just people working their arses off relentlessly, day in day out because they want to. Some stack shelves, others see in the donations, guiding carloads to the right section of the warehouse – clothes to the right, food to the left. We volunteered with Refugee Community Kitchen, the left-hand side of the warehouse and the people who have provided a hot lunch every single day to thousands of people. The numbers vary. On our visit they provided 1700 lunches a day, but this is less than it was at peak demand before the authorities demolished half the Jungle at the end of February (http://www.theguardian.com/…/french-authorities-begin-clear…) and numbers diminished. During this time 129 children disappeared and were never been seen again.

All of this is overseen brilliantly by Simone ‘Sim’ Simmer who magically just knows everything about everything and what is needed when. The warehouse space is given by the local French charity Auberge des Migrants, and it is also occupied by other charities such as Calais Kitchens who oversee bagging up smaller donations and sending them out to the camps.

Back in the kitchen Pol and Viv are back at it again, preparing the bases for the next day’s lunch. Onions, garlic and ginger in vast quantities have been prepped by the volunteers in the next section of the warehouse – a relentlessly-repetitive job which is done with smiles and a wee dance to the loud tunes played throughout the site. These go into the oil heating in three 100-litre pots on gas burners. “Watch what we do,” says Pol. “Because you guys are going to do it tomorrow.”

First the whole garlic cloves go in, then the onions and finally the ginger, browning sweetly and slowly – then some aromatics are added such as cardamom and cumin seeds. As this happens the chefs will decide what they will use for tomorrow’s lunch. This is determined by what donations have come in all with an eye on nutrition and flavour – there’s a whole load of courgettes today, so that will be one of the main vegetables. Yotam Ottolenghi has donated palettes of glass jars of a red pepper paste and they’re brilliant as a base for curries and spicy stews – so they go in along with green stalks from coriander and some base spices such a turmeric, used a lot because of its anti-inflammatory qualities. Dried beans and pulses are soaked.

Then the chefs set about thinking what the vegetable dish is. There’s loads of swede to be used up, so they’re going to make a swede and potato mash. Once these are boiled, Viv and I mash them with just one small domestic kitchen masher – it’s an easier job to do when the music is making your legs get your champing rhythm going. This is seasoned with garam masala and other spices, sweetened with some honey and tastes a lot bloody nicer than it sounds or looks. The lids go on and they’re stacked, ready to go in the not-such-a-good oven for heating the following morning.

As the bases begin to meld their flavours, they’re attacked with a a giant stick blender which is about the size of me. Then the lids go on and they’re left to do their magic overnight. The stainless steel worktops are cleaned and anti-bac’d, the floors are mopped and the place is left spic and span for the morning where the never-ending cycle of cooking lunch starts again.

Perhaps the most important job in that kitchen is the rice. Anja is in charge on our first morning and the whole kitchen is excited by a donation of basmati rice. The previous rice was a bit rubbish and clumped and it didn’t go down too well in the camp. Anya is overseeing four pots of rice and when it is cooked Pol pronounces it perfect. It is served out into deep gastros – large metal catering vessels. These are then topped with a garnish – this is usually a mixture of fresh herbs, nuts and seeds, all with an eye on nutrition and flavour, then fluffed up by hand. Pol tells me this is one of the most important jobs in the kitchen, it is all about getting the steam out and the grains to separate, not about stirring and mixing it all together. Pol is from Paisley (a Buddy) and I am from Glasgow (a Weedgie) so there are a few jokes about fluffing, hand technique and finishing things off. When each gastro is fluffed a further layer of herbs, fruits and nuts is sprinkled on, the lids go on and they are stacked up, ready to go out.

It’s a fast and furious morning. A blackboard is updated everyday with the numbers needed, broken down by the number of gastros. Pol and Viv both know what time everything needs to start boiling, when the rice should be ready and their eye is always on the clock. One hiccup and the 1230pm deadline for everything out and away will be missed and people will be painfully hungry with the lateness.

Meanwhile the veg and pulses are added to the big pots and they’re on a steady boil. They need to be watched for the catch point so that they don’t stick at the bottom – there must be very little waste in a kitchen run on such a tight timetable, a burnt bottom can ruin a whole 100-litre pot which feeds more 500 people. It’s a fast job, the bubbles roil and splutter and the chefs spinning the stews with giant paddle stirrers need to dance out of their way. On our first full day there was a spicy bean stew with aubergines. Pol tells us there’s so many different nationalities in the camp, they have to bear that in mind too. Some people love loads of chili, some don’t – so that is left up to them. When the big pots are ready, the hard veg and pulses are soft, they’re tasted for seasoning before being ladled out into gastros, topped with fresh herbs then wheeled on a wee trolley to the strong-armed people who hook them up and clingfilm them all then stick on their lids. Lap makes a sriracha sauce from the Ottolenghi base spiced up with chilis he has fried off in oil – it’s banging and when we do witness the serving we see some take two big dessertspoons of the stuff whilst others ignore it completely.

The van pulls up around 12.15 ready to be loaded up. Salad (leaves, cucumber, grated carrot, tomatoes) prepped by the choppers, goes in first with a giant pot of dressing (today’s was made by Lap), then the rice goes in, the veg and finally the hot dishes. Fruit is already in there along with sweets made from the big donation of marzipan, rolled up into balls and stuck with coconut. And that’s it, they’re off.

The distribution team on our visit is led by Maz, an effervescent German girl who is also pretty much a full timer at the warehouse. She drives the van down to the Jungle and begins the drop off, taking gastros marked for individual parts of the camp such as the women and children’s centre, the ashram, Jungle Books (the library and learning centre), the church and to various individual communities who have their own leaders, such as the Syrians.

Once this is done, Maz drives to a spot near the bridge (site of the Banksy graffiti) to set up trestle tables to be lined up with gastros. The line begins forming as soon as the van parks. On our visiting, the lunch givers are all women, smiling and warm. The eaters are mostly men and most are very grateful and say so. Some don’t want rice, preferring extra dahl. Others smile as they see today’s grains are not sticking, topped with the usual carrots as well as carrots that have been braised in butter and thyme. For many, this is the only hot meal (maybe any meal) of the day. Yes, the Jungle has makeshift restaurants and shops set up in adverse circumstances but these cost money and god knows where a lot of these people are supposed to get money from.

Back in the kitchen – at a somewhat less frenetic pace – the bases go back on again for tomorrow’s lunch and so it goes on.

On our last morning Lap makes the rice – how could he not? Pol pronounces it amazing and says it is the first time a volunteer has cooked rice straight off the bat without huge amounts of it having to be chucked away. Today’s curry is a dahl, heavy on the turmeric, with lots of coconut and a lightness of touch on the spices and it’s bloody delicious. The veg is an aubergine parmigiana, made by Lap with tinned aubergines in oil that need to be used up and with melted cheese on top it something a little bit different for the refugees – it goes down a storm.

And all the while at the back of the kitchen are these people doing the dishes. These are not any dishes. They are enormous pots and ladles, stuck with fiery bright sauces, clumps of rice, and general detritus and it is back-breaking monotonous work – yet people do it with a smile.

As this goes on, other volunteers are taking the smaller-sized donations and bagging them up to go out to families who are being helped to self sufficiency so that they can cook at the small part of camp currently their ‘home”, if you saw these ramshackle huts you’d see why this is a laughable, inappropriate word. Then others are out on site, building kitchens, shelters and the like. Some volunteers are ministering psychological help, others physical. And then there’s the tornado that is Liz Clegg, who has taken responsibility for the unaccompanied children in the camp and is doing as much for them as she can whilst our government dithers over whether these children should be allowed to come here or whether it would set a precedent and cause the floodgates to open and make other little children travel thousands of miles for the sake of it. I did not go to Calais as a journalist, so I did not make a point of exploring this issue further but the Jungle is no place for children, and you can read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/…/refugee-children-calais-homesi…

This was an unbelievably rewarding experience for us. The biggest was to see the happy faces after they’d eaten the food that we had helped to prepare, the food that many of our friends had paid for. But also we were in total awe of the people doing this every day. Pol told us that this was soul food and we now know what the soul means in that term. Every single person there is putting their heart and soul in to what they are doing. We also learned a great deal about catering for 1700 people to a strict timetable. There’s a sign on the kitchen wall called the Platinum Rules of RCK. It reads: “Cleanliness is next to godliness (whoever that may be… or not); hot, healthy, nutritious food with taste, depth and flavour… unctuous!!!: all food to be made with love, full stop. With love and awesomeness RCK. x”

We left the warehouse with new friends, full of admiration for those who stay there in the ramshackle caravans and keep the place going every day – there are rules in caravanarnia and they must be observed: no fires, no loose animals, no noisy mayhem after 1030pm, the site and caravans must be kept clean and tidy. On our last day most of the weekend warriors had gone home (just as we were about to do) and the place was very quiet.

Between us, with all of your help and some donations from Instagram, Lap and I raised more than £2000. That money was spent on the carload of stuff from Taj Stores on Brick Lane. Then when in Calais we went to a local wholesaler called Metro and did a small run to Lidl. We gave a cash donation to help with the day-to-day flow: Sim makes regular runs to top up things that run out and are desperately needed. The rest of the money we transferred to the RCK account. Sim makes frequent trips to a supplier in Lille, an hour and 20 minutes away because fresh goods are vastly cheaper there. They need petrol for that and then, of course, a kitchen needs gas – loads of it.

We paid all of our own expenses. If you do decide to go we wouldn’t really recommend the F1 Hotel.

You can follow Refugee Community Kitchen on Facebook here: 
https://www.facebook.com/groups/RefugeeCommunityKitchen/permalink/1073225269411642/

If you want to volunteer email refugeecommunitykitchen@gmail.com, but please do be prepared to do what they ask you to do – you might end up on the onion crew or doing the dishes. If you have a kitchen skill set, let them know about it in advance – you could go for a week and end up being head chef if you’re that good. I was lucky enough to be allowed in the cooking kitchen because I piggybacked Lap, who is a semi-professional chef. I am a good home cook who was willing to muck in and do what I was told but also to intuitively guess what was needed, be it fetching pulses from the shelves and soaking them, getting garnishes made for the beautiful rice or stirring the vast pots at the crucial point to stop them from sticking. Lap cooked dishes in his own right, but all of it under the auspices of Pol and Viv as there’s no room for off piste slaloms in a kitchen such as this. Go and see for yourself.

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