Day in the life …Steve Baxendell, Blind Veterans, Llandudno

04/01/2018 - 07:00
Former RAF chef Steve Baxendell, who saw service in the Falklands War in 1982, has worked as a catering manager in Llandudno for six years helping to provide respite care for blind veterans.

His energy, ideas and enthusiasm were part of what persuaded judges to make Steve Baxendell the Care Catering Award winner at the Cost Sector Catering Awards earlier this year.

For Steve (left), though, the daily challenge of feeding over 60 blind and sometimes physically disabled service men and women is a labour of love.

“As an ex-RAF chef myself I feel I’m giving back. It's one of the reasons I came here in the first place.

“For me I get up in the morning and I’m happy. I’ve got a really great team, a good bunch, and then there’s the interaction with members.

“We’re all here to make someone’s stay special. Many of the members like to have a chat, but it’s not just at mealtimes. I have several members who will come in and have a chat  - my office door is always open.”

The training and rehabilitation centre in Llandudno was opened in 2011 when the charity St Dunstan’s took over the former private hospital to create a facility in the north to mirror its existing operation in Brighton. It was rebranded as Blind Veterans UK three years ago, but Steve has been there from the start, employed by TnS Catering, which holds the catering contract.

“I usually start about 7.30am, after a half an hour drive from home. I’ll go round the staff, making sure we’re ready for breakfast.”

The 30-40 staff on site at this time are served breakfast at 7.30am and the veterans – always referred to as ‘members’ – are served from 8am.

“We have a plated meals service for members, like a hotel. I run the pass, wander round the restaurant, talk to members.”

Up to 64 members stay at any one time, falling into one of several categories. New members visit Llandudno for a week for assessment and to find out what Blind Veterans UK can do to help them. The list is impressive and includes skills training, computer aids to help them live more independently, running marathons, a fully equipped gym, cookery lessons, arts and crafts workshops plus a bar, an outdoor terrace and several lounges.

Others come for a short break by the sea or for specific rehabilitation and training.

Steve heads a 24-strong catering team, including a head chef, three other chefs, a KP (kitchen porter) team of three, 8-10 full-time front-of-house staff and a further 8-9 casual staff he calls on.

“The kitchen team has been with me since the beginning, the chefs we have trained started out as catering assistants.”

Time between breakfast and lunch is spent in meetings with centre management on events, liaising with chef, and ‘on the floor in the kitchen if the chef needs the help’.

He also finds time through each day to catch up with some emails, work on promotions, ensure posters are ready, and oversee the weekly stock take of food, cleaning materials, the bar, while also ensuring he stays on budget with costings.

“At the beginning of every week we get a list of who’s coming in and we find out what they like and try to work with them to get what they want.”

The biggest challenge they face is simply that most of their customers are blind or at least visually impaired.

“All the staff are properly trained about how we put food on the plate and when we serve it up we’re talking to them all the time telling them what’s on their plate, where it is, and communicating things like the fact it’s hot.

“We use the clockface descriptors, so it’ll be something like ‘at 12o’clock your potatoes, gravy on top, there’s a drink above your right hand with the handle on the right’.

“It means chefs need to plate up correctly and the front-of-house staff need to understand it too. There’s a lot of talking and I’m sure my team gets bored with me telling them it’s all about communication.”

Not surprisingly food is hugely important to members and Steve understands this makes his role a key one at the centre.

“Our kitchen team like to keep the food varied for members and staff, asking ourselves: are we getting this right? The head chef and his team all contribute ideas and recipes.

“A lot of members used to have a cooked breakfast, three-course lunch and three-course dinner, but recently more and more have said it was too much.

“So we introduced a light lunch option with up to 15 choices, including soup, sandwiches, home-made sausage rolls, scotch eggs and quiche.

“The average age of members is between 70 and 80, so they like traditional dishes but also some more modern offerings. We serve things like West Indian curry, pies, and tagliatelle for dinner.

“But we also have much younger members visiting and they often ask if they can have something like a lamb rogan josh. If necessary we’ll get out a plug-in hob and make one there and then.

“We’re in Wales and source a lot of our fresh food locally, so we make sure include things like lamb cowl and bara brith [fruit loaf] on the menu.

“Friday is always fish and chips, there’s a Sunday roast every week and we now also do a midweek roast after feedback from members and staff.

“We sometimes get special requests from members, too, and I always tell the team, ‘if we’ve got it then let’s do it’. I don’t like to say ‘no’.

“These people have all served queen and country and we don’t know how they got to where they are. Imagine if it was your grandparent?”

An ex-rugby player and coach, Steve has some regular members who always make a beeline to talk to him about rugby.

“Quite honestly it makes your day. Even though we are a contract caterer, we are embedded in the Blind Veterans team.

“I have been out coasteering [rock-hopping, shore-scrambling, swell-riding, cave-exploring and cliff-jumping] and canoeing with members and I encourage the catering team to get involved and go out horse riding or joining day trips with members.

“Interaction with them is one of the biggest pluses. It’s not just work and go home here.”

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