The working life of a hospice chef

Categories: People & Places.

Chris Took is the chef and catering  manager at The Hospice of St Francis in Berkhamsted. The hospice’s award-winning chef and his team have transformed meal times for hundreds of terminally ill patients, and Chris’ mission is to do everything he can to enable people who have lost their appetite through illness or treatment to enjoy good food once more. Here, he explains a little more about his role.

I have had a varied catering background in both the commercial and health industries since going into catering straight from college at 18, and starting out as an apprentice commis chef at a hotel in Ipswich. I learned a lot there in five years before moving to London and was working as a demonstration chef for a company selling catering equipment before I joined the hospice. My experience has certainly been put to the test as catering for sick people is so very different from catering for healthy customers with good appetites.

Indirectly, the role chose me. I became interested in the hospice movement after being a volunteer in another hospice for over three years. Volunteering there in day care gave me an insight into the valuable role that hospices play and gave me some idea of what patients’ needs and wishes might be with regards to food. I often found myself listening to patients who wistfully told me that one of the things they had most enjoyed in life  –  their food  – had become such a problem for them.  When The Hospice of St Francis advertised for a Catering Manager 16 years ago, I jumped at the chance to do my small bit to make a difference.

Day to day, I manage the kitchen and my team of cooks, catering assistants and volunteers, but my main priority is to make sure that the patients in our 14-bed Inpatient Unit get fed – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and that we provide freshly prepared meals for family members too.

I always make sure that I chat to patients and families about their meals to learn about their dietary requirements, likes, dislikes and physical limitations. I understand how anxious families can become when their loved ones refuse to eat and I try to do as much as possible to allay their fears. Choice is the magic ingredient. To me, it is impossible to prepare a plate of food not knowing the patient or the family who are eating it.

The portions, colour, taste and texture of food can look so different to someone who is unwell and finding it difficult to face food at all. I am always looking at and trying different ideas to improve our patients’ quality of life – whether that is by developing nutritious smoothies to help patients who find it difficult to face ordinary solid food or by giving a patient who is reluctant to eat a little of what they fancy.

We also cater for special occasions and family celebrations like weddings, birthdays and anniversaries and are responsible for feeding staff and catering for the many and varied functions here at the hospice as well as at external fundraising events. It is always busy!

As part of the hospice’s bereavement programme, my team and I have worked with the Supportive Care Team to develop and facilitate our popular adult and teenage Cooking with Chris courses for bereaved family members and carers.

The six-week courses run twice yearly in spring and autumn and are designed to boost people’s motivation to cook, promote well-being, teach vital cooking skills and techniques and use food therapeutically to enhance communication. For some, the course has been a lifeline. For others it has been life-changing.

Just seeing the journey the six to eight participants of every course take, cooking and eating together at the end of each session, forming a close-knit, supportive social group, and coming back to the hospice six weeks after the course ends to prepare and serve a three-course fundraising meal for their relatives and friends in the Bistro, is incredibly satisfying. You really feel you have achieved something!

I always say food is love. Food is an opportunity to bring patients and families together in the moment whether it is for a Sunday lunch, a birthday celebration or a special anniversary.  On a day to day level here at the hospice, it is also something that patients can control in terms of what they like, how they like it cooked, how big or small a portion they want and how it is presented.

It is not restaurant quality. It is tasty, home-cooked food prepared with good ingredients and love. For the patient and their families, knowing that food has been prepared with such care and close attention to detail, brings tremendous comfort and peace of mind.

My whole team and I take great pride in every plate we send out because sometimes we only have one chance to get it right. I had a note from a patient just the other day to say how much she had enjoyed her mushrooms on toast for breakfast – it is at times like that that I feel I am doing my job right. 

My aim is  just to do my job every day to the best of my ability, keep an open mind, try anything once and above all to keep on listening to patients to find out what they would like to see on our menus.

For more information visit The Hospice of St Francis

*Chris and his team won the National Dignity Council’s Peoples Award for Dignity in Care in 2009.

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