Several Christmases ago, chef Tony Thompson found himself with no plans at all.
But rather than feel sorry for himself, he made his way to Ruth and Naomi’s Mission to help make Christmas dinner.
“I volunteered here for the day,” he says, reminiscing while standing in the bustling kitchen at the downtown Chilliwack shelter.
“It was mayhem,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘they really need some help here.’”
Several years passed, and as big changes were taking shape at RAN, Thompson was up the valley working as the chef at Camp Squeah.
Director Bill Raddatz called him up, and asked him to be that help. He was happy to accept the job, and has been at heading up the kitchen ever since.
“I didn’t even apply,” he says of taking the job last fall. “I got this phone call out of the blue, and I just put it down as a God thing.”
So, this will be his third time having a hand in serving the Christmas Day dinner that the mission provides to the community. This year, they’re expecting to feed 300 people in total. It breaks down to 150 men, 100 women and about 50 children. Other than Cyrus Centre, who will be focusing on feeding teens that day, they are the only service providers opening their doors for a formal Christmas Day meal this year. Both organizations are also providing gifts for their clients.
But if any kitchen is used to serving up large meals, it’s the mission’s kitchen. They serve lunch and multiple dinners every day, with the help of service groups, businesses and a team of volunteers. Some of the groups that step in to help are regulars, others may just help out once in a while. On Tuesday, for example, Smokin Deals Auto was working alongside Thompson, helping with everything from peeling potatoes to setting up the dining room. They even brought presents to give out to the children who would be coming for dinner later.
In total, Ruth and Naomi’s has hosted and served 6,200 meals in the last year.
So Christmas dinner should be a breeze, right?
It will take 200 pounds of turkey, 140 pounds of potatoes and five gallons of gravy. They’ll also prepare 60 pounds each of carrots and brussels sprouts. Dessert this year will be mostly courtesy of a donation. Someone generously dropped off a large selection of tasty treats, cutting out some of the more tedious kitchen work for the big day.
Not that it will all be cooked on Christmas.
The heavy work starts today (Friday), when Thompson will bone out the turkeys in the morning, and roast them in the afternoon. He’ll cut them up on Saturday, and serve on Sunday.
None of this would be possible without the donations that come in from the community, he adds. And it’s those constant donations that keeps him buoyed in what can be very tiring work.
“One of the things that keeps me coming here is the generosity of others,” he says, as he points out shelf upon shelf of donated food items.
While Christmas dinner is planned, many of the other meals he creates for the city’s poorest families, including the homeless, are mapped out on the fly.
Since they can’t foresee what donations they’ll receive, Thompson wings it and relies on his 42 years experience as a chef to make it all work. And a weekly budget for necessities helps fill in the gaps and ensure there is always food in the cupboard.
“I have a degree from the University of Making Stuff Up,” he says, smiling.
It’s also helped that the mission has been able to make some major renovations, including improving their kitchen area and creating a walk-in freezer. Thompson says they’ve reduced their food waste by a whopping 90 per cent.
All of these improvements, from a qualified chef, better facilities, and the cold storage, mean that there is less worry about feeding the people who come to them for help.
The next step, Thompson says, is teaching people how to better feed themselves. That will happen in the future, when they are able to build their planned housing project for low-income families.
It’s work that Thompson looks forward to – further improving the lives of the mission’s clients.
Dinner at Ruth and Naomi’s Mission will be served on Christmas Day at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and a free ticket is required for admission, from the mission office.
Over at the Cyrus Centre, executive director Les Talvio says they never know how many youth to expect. But, he adds, their doors are open on Christmas Day to all youth who are on the streets, and their staff and volunteers will be hosting a 6 p.m. dinner, with gifts.