Real Life

Let's get cooking! We go inside the Meals on Wheels kitchen

Take 5’s Brittany Smith went along to help out in the Meals on Wheels kitchen as staff whip up dignity, respect, and hundreds of meals.

By Brittany Smith
The moon is still shining brightly in the sky as I knock on the door to the Meals on Wheels office in Turramurra, NSW.
For the kitchen staffers, who are tasked with creating and packaging 600 meals a day, work kicks off at 6am.
Unlike my bleary-eyed self, they start the day running with no time to waste.
Head chef, Tony Lyons, 70, is aware the hours are different to those of most restaurant chefs.
"I'm waking up around the same time I used to be getting home," he jokes.
When he first started working in the Meals on Wheels kitchen, he only intended it to be a temporary gig.
"I wanted a break from working weekends and nights," he admits.
Getting busy in the kitchen. Photo by Philip Castleton/Are Media Syndication
But what started as a change of pace soon became a passion.
Nineteen years later, Tony is still championing the community service.
His loyalty is a testament to the quality of the food.
After all, it's been 55 years since his cooking apprenticeship – when it comes to flavour and nutrition, he has a lifetime of knowledge.
Tony and his team are a well-oiled machine.
The other cooks, Judy, 64, Vera, 61, and Brigitte, 63, have all worked together under Tony for 10 years.
Their routine is as synchronised as a dance.
The group weave around the room, ducking in and out of corners, never stepping in another's path.
Brigitte hard at work. Photo by Philip Castleton/Are Media Syndication
Unfortunately, I find myself getting in the way more than a few times but, despite how busy they are, no-one minds.
The day starts with salads and sandwiches.
Mounds of fresh chicken, ham, roast beef and pastrami line the bench, alongside juicy tomatoes and cucumbers.
Once the tomato slices have been patted with paper towel, to avoid soggy bread, the ingredients are layered and sandwiches are cut diagonally.
Afterwards, the cooks move on to the larger meals, like sausages and vegies, and rissoles with gravy.
Unlike most pre-packaged food in the supermarket, the produce is free from preservatives.
"I refuse to put rubbish on someone's table," Tony says.
Far away from the dozens of large knives that line the back wall, I get to work pouring a jug of crème brûlée into 140 servings before they're left to set.
Chef Tony loves his work. Photo by Philip Castleton/Are Media Syndication
As Tony keeps a close eye on my steady hand, he reveals why he's so passionate about his job.
"Just because you can't get out to do your shopping anymore doesn't mean you don't deserve good food," he explains. "It's up to us to look after our elderly."
Serving as the only operational Meals on Wheels kitchen in Sydney's North Shore, they certainly have their hands full.
They deliver food to 250 clients a day, from Hornsby to Dural, Castle Hill to Beecroft, Hunters Hill to Lane Cove and beyond.
They cater to all types of dietary requirements, as well as physical abilities.
Some meals are served already chopped, while others are pureed for those with difficulty chewing.
For the staff, it's all about giving people the power to choose what's best for them.
With such a large client base, it's no wonder Tony often works 10-hour days.
Sadly, much of his role is taken up by paperwork and strict budgeting.
Getting ready for the delivery. Photo by Philip Castleton/Are Media Syndication
Wanting to balance the chequebooks without compromising on quality and flavour, Tony has struck deals with local butchers as well as companies like Nestlé and Tip Top.
It's part of the demanding admin tasks, which see him juggling his kitchen duties with spreadsheets.
His office is filled with photos of family, stuck next to shelves of well-thumbed cookbooks.
"We type all the nutritional information ourselves then print it onto labels," he says as he sticks a tag onto each crème brûlée container by hand.
"A lot of older people don't know how to get enough protein into their diets. With us, they know they're getting the right nutrients."
By the time the meals are packed, ready to be picked up for distribution by volunteers, the sun is high in the sky.
Bernadette, one of the many amazing volunteers. Photo by Philip Castleton/Are Media Syndication
Schools and offices have only just opened but the Meals on Wheels kitchen has created food for hundreds of Aussies.
It's the rewarding part of the job that keeps Tony, Judy, Vera and Brigitte coming back for more.
"You really get to make a difference," Tony says, beaming.
At the end of the day, I leave with a sense of accomplishment.
Lending a hand with a few desserts is nothing compared to the incredible work Tony and his team achieve every day.
But the honour they feel, filling the bellies of our most vulnerable community members, fills me up, too.

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