Dinner a chance to spread ‘joy and peace'

Compass chef Geoff Stewart (centre) and Acts of Kindness Charitable Trust 
Compass chef Geoff Stewart (centre) and Acts of Kindness Charitable Trust members Anne and Grant Hardy are at the heart of the massive exercise to prepare Christmas dinner for about 500 people at the Dunedin Town Hall. PHOTOS: BRENDA HARWOOD
Creating a fabulous Christmas dinner for 500-plus people is a huge effort — something akin to a military exercise, but with the added challenge of co-ordinating dozens of volunteers.

The calm heart of the Dunedin Community Christmas Dinner, about to be held for the seventh time at Dunedin Town Hall, is Compass chef Geoff Stewart.

With 26 years of experience as a chef, including several past town hall Christmas dinners, Mr Stewart has it all down to a fine art.

The Christmas dinner is organised by the Acts of Kindness Charitable Trust, with the aim of bringing together a broad cross-section of Dunedin people to enjoy a delicious meal in the beautiful town hall with good company.

The event usually attracts about 500 guests, along with dozens of volunteer food handlers, servers, table hosts and entertainers.

Timing is everything when you have 100kg each of ham, lamb, potatoes, and vegetables, as well as gravy and all the trimmings to cook and serve all at once.

Not to mention "lots and lots" of dessert.

Acts of Kindness trustee Grant Hardy said Mr Stewart did a great job of moulding a diverse team of volunteers, most with no catering experience at all, into an efficient, cohesive team, while having fun along the way.

"He has never met most of them before, and yet he gets them organised into a team within an hour — it’s quite extraordinary," Mr Hardy said.

Cooking for a big crowd did not need to be stressful, "so long as the instructions are clear and concise and everyone knows what they are doing", Mr Steward said.

With the Compass kitchen unavailable due to flooring replacement, this year’s community Christmas dinner will be prepared in the Dunedin Town Hall kitchen.

"It will be a little bit tricky, because that will mean we may only have one or two ovens.

"We will definitely have to be organised, but I’m sure we can make it work."

Preparations will start on December 23, when the meat will be cooked and rested overnight ready for slicing and arranging on trays for reheating on Christmas Day.

The potatoes will be prepared and roasted on Christmas Eve, ready to be reheated the next day, and masses of fruit and puddings will be cut up for dessert.

Mr Stewart will arrive at Dunedin Town Hall at about 8am on Christmas Day for final food prep, service, and clean-up, and expects to be there until everything is cleaned and put away, about 6pm.

"It’s a busy day, but also a nice day — it’s pretty special to be able to give the guests a four-star experience on Christmas Day," he said.

As a Compass chef for the past five years, Mr Stewart has catered for everything from visiting cricket teams to rock stars, and had many interesting experiences along the way.

"The main thing for me is to see people happy and enjoying my food."

Mr Hardy said the Dunedin Town Hall, which would be decorated in festive style for Christmas Day, was a very special venue for a community Christmas meal.

"People might have had a tough year, so this is our chance to pamper them a bit, and give them joy and peace," he said. There are still plenty of places available for people who wish to attend the Community Christmas Dinner as guests; to register phone Dunedin Community House on 471-6150, or register online at dch.org.nz

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