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On the first Thursday of each month CareSouth’s Community Hub turns into a communal restaurant, complete with its own in-house culinary team.

The team of six chefs often take diners on a world tour with themed meals including a Mexican Fiesta, a Chinese New Year celebration dinner, and a traditional three course Christmas feast complete with glazed ham.

The before-service buzz is no different to any commercial kitchen. Knives are sharpened, fry pans are fired up, food is chopped and prepped, the banter is good natured and the production line mirrors that of a restaurant pass. But you won’t find any Gordon Ramsay types barking orders and dropping inappropriate words. This is because the cooks are all still in high school.

The budding chefs from Illawarra Sports High School, led by Year 12 students Harry and Jordan, are all studying hospitality. Each month the students - with support from their Food Technology and Hospitality teachers - volunteer to create, prepare, cook and serve a themed meal for members of the Berkeley community.

The Illawarra Sports High (ISH) crew cater for as many as 60 people, who come along to enjoy a delicious meal with friends in a safe, supportive environment.

With Meet & Eat numbers increasing each month, CareSouth Community Hub coordinator Natalie Nicastri set up the successful partnership with ISH two years ago. It was an opportunity to not only give students hands-on experience, cooking for and serving such a large group of people in a short space of time, but also allowed Meet & Eat to cater for a growing crowd.

“More and more families from the Berkeley community are enjoying the opportunity to eat out and catch up with friends,” said Natalie. “Many of those who come along sometimes struggle to make ends meet, so a hot meal with plenty of leftovers to take away is always embraced by members of the community.”

Food Technology and Hospitality teacher Jane Jarman said partnerships like Meet & Eat are essential for students to broaden their skill set as well as their community participation in a safe, supportive environment.

“Our students have learned so many new skills, and not just cooking skills but life skills,” said Jane. “Programs like this are crucial for them to get hands on experience. It’s a soft entry into the world of commercial cooking for students. It’s also really humbling and confronting for them to see how difficult life can be for other people, humbling because they realise how lucky they are.”

It is a sentiment that the students share.

“Working here and giving back is so important due to CareSouth doing so much to help the community,” said Harry, the Year 12 captain at Illawarra Sports High.

Jordan agrees: “It makes us feel good inside that we are able to do that. Meet & Eat gives us something to look forward to. There’s more to life than just worrying about yourself, having the ability to do that makes you feel fulfilled inside. And when the people we cook for see us out in the community they always say hi to us.”

Erin, a Year 7 students and the youngest on the team, only started the program this year but tackles the vegetable prep like a pro. “I love cooking and this gives me a chance to help those less fortunate,” she said.

“We feel good when we can share a meal with the community,” said Emma, a Year 9 student.

When asked to choose a favourite dish, Year 9 student Tara nominates the Meet & Eat Spring-themed dinner.

“The mint ribs that we made were delicious,” said Tara. “After we have served everyone we get to eat as well. It’s really good meeting the community and giving back.”

And it is not just the ISH students who give up their time to volunteer for Meet & Eat. Louise Mahon, one of the Food Technology and Hospitality teachers who helps students with the food preparation, said other staff members from the school frequently help out.

“One of our head teachers Pete Davies donates produce from his farm for the students to use,” said Louise. “It’s such a great program and the benefits are twofold. It builds confidence in the students’ food prep skills as well as allowing them to be part of a wider community. The confidence they get from talking to the community is invaluable. And it also raises awareness of being inclusive.”

The current cohort of students are so organised and enthusiastic they come in to CareSouth during the school holidays to tidy and restock the staple pantry items that they use each month for Meet & Eat. Harry and Jordan also mobilised their fellow Year 12 students, as part of an end-of-year fundraising drive, to donate $500 to CareSouth to support vulnerable young people.

Food Technology and Hospitality teacher Carrin Di Milia, who got the CareSouth/ISH partnership off the ground with Natalie, laughs as she fondly recalls the meals prepared by the first cohort of students two years ago.

“The kitchen was a bit chaotic with the first group of students who went through the program, but now it is a well-oiled machine,” she said.

So well-oiled that ISH students and staff were able to cater for more than 70 people at this month’s CareSouth Christmas Meet & Eat celebration. The glazed Christmas ham (see the recipe below) was such a hit people were coming back for seconds, thirds and some to take away.

ISH Glazed Christmas Ham

1 large ham

3 nectarines

1 small packet whole cloves

3 teaspoons of brown sugar

2 oranges for juice

Method

1.Remove skin and most of the fat from the ham. Score diagonally

2.Slice nectarines and attach to the scored surface of the ham with the cloves

3.Mix the orange juice and brown sugar to a paste and baste the ham

4.Bake in a 180°C oven for an hour and a half, basting regularly

The next Meet & Eat will be held on February 6, 2020. Everyone is welcome.

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