This week, Syft’s Phil Houlihan was lucky enough to catch up with Harry Lomas MBE, BEM, FIH, Head of Culinary, Delaware North, Wembley Stadium to hear about Compassion London’s fantastic initiative to feed NHS workers and vulnerable people during Covid-19.

What was life before lockdown like for you?

Life at Wembley before the lockdown was extremely busy – it involved preparing menus for the England games, as well as menu tastings for the Hospitality and club Wembley members. When lockdown happened, like lots of people I was furloughed.

When the call came to help Compassion London Charity I jumped at the chance. It was humbling to see so many people giving up their spare time to help

So, what is Compassion London?

Compassion London is a group of professional chefs, foodies and volunteers who have come together to cook and deliver delicious, nutritious meals for those who need them the most.

The main CPU (kitchen) transformed from doing normal food for the stadium – 90,000 meals across hospitality and concessions – to going into a factory production. The majority of the food were donated from the likes of Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. My role was to assemble it into some sort of menu – a bit like Ready, Steady, Cook on a mammoth scale! We needed an average of 5,000 individual meals daily with a choice of meat or vegetarian.

The finished food was sent out each morning and distributed around London to the NHS, vulnerable people and care homes.

Whilst the food was fantastic the best part of running the kitchen were the Compassion London volunteers who came from all over the south of England. They have been incredible. whilst I had my team of head chefs and team from Delaware North UK, we also had lawyers, solicitors, an airline navigator, air stewardesses, mums, dads, opticians. We also had a plumber, a tree surgeon, an event coordinator, chefs, recruiters, bankers and a builder. The team was made up with all types of trades and skills and people from different backgrounds working together to make this happen.

Keeping people motivated is always a challenge – especially if they’re in the pan wash! So, we made sure to rotate the positions, people would spend an hour at a time in one station and then rotate to the next. I tried to foster a working regime that I like to work in – no screaming or shouting, just keeping things harmonious.

By the time Compassion London moves out, we’ll have done over 150,000 meals. That’s not a number to be sniffed at – I think that’s a real good news story for Wembley Stadium and for The FA as well. We might not have scored a goal on the pitch, but we’ve scored a goal in a different way.

What were your initial thoughts when you started hearing about the gravity that Covid-19 might impose on business as it spread toward the UK?

I suppose the COVID outbreak crept up on us and then BANG!  Within a week everything changed. I sorted things at work at work and then make sure the family was safe and at home.

Which steps have you taken across the stadium kitchens to prepare for the running of this production during these very challenging times?

We have worked with Food Alert to bring all the HACCP together, trained volunteers in Food and Health and safety. Re- laid the kitchen to help with social distancing and to accommodate a factory process of receiving goods, storing, preparation, menu makeup, cooking, packing, labelling and finally dispatch.

What is the most exciting aspect of running the kitchen in conjunction with a charity?

Definitely the diversity of the volunteers working within the kitchen, people from all backgrounds and walks of life coming together working towards a joint purpose.

Have you seen an influx of volunteers to help with the operation?

We didn’t struggle for chefs as we had lots of volunteers, but cleaning and washing up we had to rotate the staff through the pan wash. We had over 100 Volunteers on the books but had an average of 40 in each day, 7 days a week for the whole month.

How many meals per day do the chefs and volunteers produce? Logistically are the meals dropped off in batches to central coolers or direct to people’s homes?

We produced an average of 5,000 individual meals a day split with meat and vegetarian options, packed, labelled and distributed to hubs for onward transition to NHS Hospitals, care homes and vulnerable people.

What’s the proudest moment in your career to-date and the most memorable event that you catered for?

I have had lots of memorable and proud moments in my career. I enjoy working with people who are keen to learn and develop their own skills. Feeding troops in Afghanistan, or feeding the The Queen and Royal Family, to feeding the spectators at Wembley.

How do you feel that stadium catering operations will adapt and change once we come out of lockdown and in the future?

It will be different. I do believe it will resurrect itself pretty quickly if we go with the guide lines and put measures in place. There might not be as many people at first, but the numbers will grow as we find a cure for Covid-19. We’ll get back to 90,000 one day!