Professional chef Margaret Mitchell has worked as a film and TV location caterer, though she’s currently a special needs maths teacher. It was a family friend who asked her if she would cook Christmas dinner for 25 homeless teenagers in London for a charity, The Pilion Trust.
Convinced that the experience would also be good for her three twentysomething daughters, Margaret, 63, agreed. She had little idea what she was letting herself – or them – in for. ‘Normally our Christmas day is very relaxed. We have breakfast in our PJs with champagne and smoked salmon. We open presents, and the girls each have a stocking. Then we go to my sister’s for a late lunch or early supper. Every few years, I have the family over here.’
Last year her festive enthusiasm led Margaret to over-extend her hospitality. ‘Before going off to spend the day cooking for the homeless, I had to cook a goose for 10 guests I’d invited to Christmas dinner that evening.’ It might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but when Margaret arrived at the shelter it quickly became apparent that the day was going to be even more challenging than she’d imagined.
‘The cooker was a small domestic electric four-ring affair – and I hate cooking on electric. Plus there was no heating in the tiny kitchen in the basement of the church where the event was being held. So I cooked with my beret on, a thermal vest, a jumper and a cardigan, and my apron over that. Oh, and sheepskin-lined boots. Then I hadn’t taken my cook’s knives with me, so I ended up having to cut turkey off the bone with a bread knife.’
Despite these setbacks, and with the girls helping to prepare and serve the food, Margaret succeeded in producing a memorable Caribbean-themed Christmas lunch for her appreciative guests in the shelter, which had been beautifully decorated by local schoolchildren. ‘Although I had to make do in that church basement, I really did enjoy it and everyone had a great time and loved the food.’
Her menu included poached salmon, Trinidadian stewed turkey with sweet potato and plantain fritters, and a Christmas cake using a traditional Guyanese recipe.
‘When I got home I headed into the kitchen to get on with my dinner party. My daughter said, “Mum, you’re mad, we should have gone to Aunty Connie’s for Christmas.” She was right: I couldn’t eat a mouthful.
‘I’ll help at the shelter again, but I certainly wouldn’t cook Christmas dinner afterwards for any number of people, not even for one.’