While most people have a break over Christmas, for hospitality workers and those involved in food and drink, it’s their busiest time. So what is it like working at Christmas – and what do they do for their own Christmas meal, assuming they have the energy to eat it? Olivia Greenway finds out
The pub manager
The Pheasant, in Buckland near Reigate is just coming up to its first birthday and Bethany Wells is gearing up for a very busy Christmas. The pub is open over the whole Christmas period. “We only have three tables left on Christmas Day and the clocks haven’t gone back yet!” she told SO. “It starts to get busy around mid-November. The pub is open (for shorter hours) on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. “Christmas Eve, we always finish late. Being on a Saturday this year, it’s going to be really busy. After a few hour’s sleep, I have to be up early on Christmas Day to set up for lunch. When everyone has finally been served their food, at about 4pm, I can slip away with Chip, my spaniel puppy to Woking for my own Christmas dinner.” At her mum and step-dad’s home, Beth is joined by her sister and brother. They eat a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. “My mum’s a brilliant cook, so we are lucky. They all wait for me, which is nice. Mum makes the Christmas pudding in October, but my step-dad can’t resist it and demolishes it before the big day. So we usually have something chocolately or cheese and biscuits for dessert. I have to be back at work in the morning to set up for Boxing Day lunch.”
James Lally, master butcher, has had a shop in Shepperton for 18 years, moving to a prime position in the High Street in 2014. In his early career, he supplied restaurants and caterers but about ten years ago decided to focus on quality, preferring free range meat and concentrating on provenance. James knows all the farms his meat comes from and visits them regularly. Beef is making a comeback, both rolled rib and sirloin. “At Christmas we sell well over double the amount of beef we normally do. People like it because we age it ourselves for 21 days.” James also sells turkeys – lots of them. “I probably sell 350 over Christmas.” James’ shop now has a deli counter stocking their own filled pies and pastries. He also runs butchery courses for amateurs, popular with groups where meat is discussed (and eaten) along with a glass of wine or two. During Christmas week, he serves mulled wine and mince pies to his customers. “We are very busy but there is a good atmosphere. I suppose we do a normal month’s takings in that week. When we close around 2pm, we are all exhausted.” So what about his own dinner? “We do like a nice turkey, so that’s what we have, a whole bird. My wife Katie does all the cooking. She doesn’t mind as she knows I work so hard. Around the table is my teenage son and younger daughter. Pigs in blankets are an essential. At some stage we’ll have a rump roast that I’ve matured for a week longer, perhaps the next day. But before I know it, I’m back at work, planning for New Year.”
Williams and Bunkell fishmongers have been in Claygate for over 30 years. Shop manager Mark Bean has worked there for 18 of them. They specialise in quality traditional fish, sourced from all over the country. “Providing the order is placed by 10am, we can source any fish – from the Highlands of Scotland to Cornwall – by the next day. We stock fresh fish such as brill, turbot, wild sea bass and Scottish halibut and then there’s smoked fish such as smoked salmon, smoked haddock and smoked salmon pate. Salmon and haddock is oak smoked on the premises and hand sliced. Smoking takes 12 to 24 hours, depending on the weather.
Mark is a master salmon slicer, having practised the craft for 16 years. The business has won a two star rating from the Great Taste Award 2016 for its smoked haddock as well as one star for its smoked salmon. “Orders for Christmas are taken from the beginning of December, with collection on Christmas Eve or the day before. During Christmas week, we start work at 4.30am and it’s not unusual for us to finish at midnight.” When the doors finally close at around 4.00pm on Christmas Eve, Mark can look forward to his own Christmas dinner. “Fortunately, I don’t have to travel far; I go to my mum who lives locally. She always cooks a traditional turkey. Naturally, I love fish, especially smoked salmon, so we’ll have that as a starter or maybe prawn cocktail. It’s a day or two off, depending when Christmas Day falls, then it’s back to work.”
Great Fosters is a Grade One listed Tudor fine dining hotel near Egham. Its first Michelin star in October 2016 has planted it firmly on the foodie map. Marc Hardiman, Executive Head Chef joined in 2014 and is passionate about building on its success, focusing on quality and consistency. “The build-up to Christmas starts around mid-November when I sit down to work out orders and quantities. Being organised is key. Christmas dinners start on 5 December – these are extra menus in addition to our normal menus rather than substitutes – so there is a lot of extra work. Christmas Day lunch normally attracts over 150 guests and the splendid Boxing Day buffet a similar number. Around 60 staff sit down to have their own Christmas dinner at about 6pm on Christmas Day. “All the senior staff work over the whole Christmas period until New Year. We try to get the junior staff to have some time off so they can be with their families.” What about Mark’s own Christmas plans? “I’ve been a chef for 21 years and worked every single Christmas Day and Boxing Day. If you work in the industry, you have to accept it. I have two families really, my work family and my real family. I try to get away to my parents just outside Bristol, on a weekday in early December or in January. My mum cooks the dinner. And I prefer not to have turkey, since I will have seen 5,000 turkey dinners before Christmas is over. I like beef or lamb. We still have the traditional Christmas pudding, though. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it.”