In Your Shoes: ‘Beyond the food’ in ExtraCare’s Longbridge Retirement Village
The Metro Bar at ExtraCare’s Longbridge Retirement Village is at the heart of the community, a continuous hub of activity and a place full to the brim of conversation, laughter and love.
Behind the scenes, in the safety of her kitchen, is Karen Humpage, Head Chef at the village, juggling the creation of delicious food for residents and visitors, with the admin of leading a team of staff and volunteers.
Like so many, I have my staple, go-to meals, that I tend to cook on a weekly basis. These usually include chilli con carnie, fajitas, pie and spaghetti bolognese. So, as I put on the apron and headed into Karen’s kitchen, I knew I would be stepping outside of my comfort zone, to spend the day discovering what life really is like in The Metro Bar at Longbridge.
It’s clear from the start that planning is everything. Whether it’s preparing a fully-loaded menu for Valentine’s Day, or to ensuring there is tasty topping to suit everyone on Pancake Day, Karen’s )self-confessed head of ‘organised mess’) doesn’t just focus on today, on the job in hand but also on tomorrow, the next day and the one after that. She says she feels like a ‘work mum’, with the staff, volunteers, residents and visitors, who are all her children to look after, making sure they are fed and happy.
Her kitchen is spotless and kept perfectly clean throughout the day; something Karen is very proud of. It’s lined with folders, which detail food allergies and recipes, along with health and safety cards.
Her day begins at 8am, with breakfast preparation the first job of the day; bacon and sausages in the oven, with eggs in the pan, ready to fry. Carol and Alison, the day’s regular volunteers arrive around 10am, to serve out the front.
The monthly audit is taking place and a man has popped his head in asking if he can check the water quality around the kitchen. Before long, a former volunteer, who is now a bank staff member, pops in to get some papers signed by Karen. With a never-ending run of visitors throughout the day, it seems that there’s more to Karen’s kitchen than just cooking.
It’s not long before I’m tasked with creating today’s desert, trifle – a favourite amongst residents, I’m told. Meanwhile, Karen is busy preparing lunch. It’s a Thursday, one of the busiest day’s at Longbridge, with lamb shanks topping the menu.
While the jelly mix of my trifles are chilling, it’s onto chopping up the salad, before taking out the food ahead of the lunch rush. By this time, Craig has arrived and is completing an online learning programme, under Karen’s instruction.
Midday arrives and the residents are queuing up almost immediately. I take my place behind the food, spoon in hand, ready to help Carol and Alison – and Pat, another amazing pair of volunteering hands – with serving lunch. I’m not sure whether it was my want to chat to the residents, or the fact that I was innocently piling the plates full of food but Karen said the day was even busier than usual. What I found most incredible though, was the fact that everyone found their job and simply got on with it. With Alison on the till, taking the money, Carol and I served the food, while Pat and Craig did the clearing up and essential jobs, like replenishing the chips, or re-stocking the knives and forks. No questions asked, no murmurs, no dispute, they all just took a role and ran with it.
It’s ‘stay-and-play’ on Thursdays, so those of all ages, from toddlers, parents, to residents and visitors – including a group of dinner ladies from a local school who pop by for a daily coffee and catchup – were tucking into the treats off the menu.
By 2pm, the queue has just about whittled down, with the odd resident, or visitor popping in for what’s left of the food. It goes without saying that my trifles flew off the shelf, of course.
With everyone telling me just how delicious the Longbridge lamb-shanks are, I felt it was only polite to try them for myself. As I’m tucking in to my lunch – which, by the way, did not disappoint – Karen comes out to check on me. It’s the first time I’ve seen her sit down all day and within seconds, a resident has spotted her and is making their way over. “I’m coming tomorrow night to the Valentine’s Day meal and I was wondering, can you put me and my friends together?” She says. “And can we sit in the middle, not near the window?” “Oh, and please can we have a big table, not one of the small ones.” Karen, who is clearly so used to having such conversations, smiles and writes down the requests in her ‘Valentine’s Day folder’.
Before she leaves, the resident says, “That Karen, she never gets five minutes to herself.”
Despite their frequent requests, it goes without saying that these residents have nothing but the upmost respect for Karen. Her approachable nature, her unmissable desire to please everyone and the mutual respect she has for anyone she speaks to, is a credit to her character. Of course, all of this means that whenever she is at Longbridge, her day becomes a cocktail of conversations, planning, admin and of course making sure the food leaves the kitchen on time and to a good quality.
On a normal day, The Metro Bar closes at 4.30pm, with Karen spending a final hour clearing up before heading home. With regular events taking place during the evenings, Karen rarely sticks to just a five-day week. From coming in specially to cater for entertainment nights, or preparing afternoon teas for baby showers, Karen’s passion and commitment to the work she does goes way beyond her usual working hours.
It was safe to say that after just a day in Karen’s shoes, I was ready for a well-earned sleep. I loved my day in the kitchen but for now, I think I’ll stick to eating the food, rather than making it.
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