Beth Massey
Stax on Stax
19 Mar 2020

The Stax Team Cooks for Ronald McDonald House

When you look at how you spend your days, chances are you spend more waking hours with the people you work with than with your family or friends. We have a “no assholes” policy here (every company should!) and we treat each other like family. Because of this strong sense of family and community, we try to give back to the community by raising money for and donating our time to charities. One initiative we undertook in early February was to volunteer to make dinner at the Ronald McDonald House.

When children become seriously ill, part of their healing journey usually involves being in the hospital where they can get the medical care they need. This can be for just a few days or it can be for months or even years. For families who don’t live in a major city, this often comes with many compromises.

While most medical care in Australia is covered by Medicare, there are other costs that make it even harder for families, especially if they can’t stay near the hospital where their child is being treated. Ronald McDonald House’s mission is to provide accommodation to the families of sick children so their loved ones can be close by to support them on their healing journey. The Stax team wanted to help prepare dinner for the families to help share our family spirit with them.

Stax Catering Team - Assemble!

The house we volunteered at said we could bring up to 15 people, but with the risk of having ‘too many cooks’, we decided on 12 people broken into four teams of three focusing on a course each— mains, sides, vegetarian and desserts. We needed to submit our proposed menu a week in advance to ensure we’d be catering to the needs – avoiding food allergies, for example – and tastes of the families there. We decided to make some standard favourites with a focus on fresh:

  • beetroot and spinach salad with Danish feta salad
  • avocado and cherry tomato salad with leafy greens
  • sun-dried tomato and broccoli pasta (vegetarian)
  • beef & zucchini lasagne,
  • chicken Enchiladas (aka Mexican lasagne),
  • potato bake (bacon and no bacon options),
  • Mexican rice,
  • black beans,
  • chicken fingers for the kids
  • for dessert, banana Eton mess and pavlova (hand made with James’ mother-in-law’s secret CWA pav recipe)

The Tuesday before the dinner, Brendan was given the final numbers. We would be cooking for 90 people including the Stax team. The teams finalised their online shopping orders and crossed their fingers. We knew there would be three ovens, but the size and configuration were going to be challenging given that we’d have three hours to prepare everything. This time would include 90 minutes in the oven for James’ pavlovas, but James wouldn’t be swayed!

On the Day

Thursday afternoon came and everyone was excited about preparing the feast. We arrived at the house and were told the KitchenAid was broken, but there were hand mixers to help with the pavlovas. The online grocery order had arrived, and teams worked to separate everything by team to start the prep, but there was some bad news. Brendan had forgotten to order the cream and chocolate for the desserts! Tragedy! Also, the tin of passionfruit was 1/16th the size he’d expected. Thankfully there was plenty of time for him to get the missing bits before it was too late.

Once we arrived, the staff and volunteers at the house could tell we had everything under control, so they left us to it until serving time. We then found out that we weren’t cooking for 90 people to eat all at once, it was more like 20 people, plus some takeaway containers we lovingly packed to take to the hospital for kids sick of hospital food.

While the Stax team loaded up plates to take out to eat with the families that were there, the staff and volunteers packed the leftovers up for people who were at the hospital late, and to put in the freezer as ‘emergency meals’ for people who’d need them. It was incredible to see how everything came together.

Meeting the Families

One of the highlights, besides Barry’s lasagne (recipe below), was meeting some of those who are staying in the house.

I met with a mom and her 14-year-old daughter from Adelaide. They’d been living in the house since 2018 because her 16-year-old son has leukaemia, had received a bone marrow transplant, and was now receiving ongoing care at the Royal Children’s Hospital. The daughter was able to attend a local school and living at the house made it possible to live as normal a life as possible with a very sick brother. Her other 18-year-old daughter was back home in Adelaide but was able to regularly visit and stay at the house with them. We chatted about how hard it is to have teenagers and how to manage screen time when the kids claim they need fancy laptops ‘for school’. You know—normal parenting challenges.

A Seven-Hour Drive to the Hospital

Sarah sat with a couple who have a farm in rural NSW, a seven-hour drive from Melbourne. Their family doctor is a two-hour drive away. Their daughter, now 15, was born with a heart condition that was discovered when she was five. They were told at the time not to worry about it but then a month ago they were told she would need an operation. Their doctor told them to come to Melbourne and have the surgery at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

They didn’t know until the day before their surgery if they’d be able to stay at the Ronald McDonald house. The best man at their wedding lives in Melbourne, but he wasn’t able to help them out with a place to stay, and with the financial stress they’re already under due to the impact of the drought on their farm, they were unable to afford to stay in a motel. Thankfully their booking was confirmed, and they were able to settle in the day before their daughter’s surgery last week.

They’ve been staying at the house ever since while their daughter is in the hospital. They’re hoping they’ll be able to stay for a week or so after their daughter gets discharged, just in case there are any complications, especially since a two-hour drive to the doctor followed by the drive back to Melbourne is hard to contemplate. Being able to stay at the house has been a huge blessing for them. The stress of being away from their farm combined with the stress surrounding the surgery are hard enough.

They love that the house is like staying at a hotel. They have their own space, which is really hard to come by when they spend their days at the hospital. They love that volunteers come in and make food like they’d make at home, especially since their daughter loves lasagne and what she gets at the hospital just isn’t the same. They also love talking to people from the ‘outside’ about normal, everyday things, just to help them get their minds off everything else going on in their lives.

More than a Team-building Activity

All in all, it was an amazing afternoon. Everyone loves to get out of the office for a bit, but this was much better than your standard team-building activity. I know everyone had an excellent time and would do it again in a heartbeat!

As promised, here is Barry’s (excellent) lasagne recipe!

Beef Lasagne for 60

Makes 3 large pans of lasagne

Ingredients

  • 5kg beef mince
  • 3 large jars passata
  • 3 tins tomato paste
  • Paprika and garlic powder (to taste)
  • 1kg brown onions, diced
  • 2x garlic bulbs, cloves minced
  • 3 x ‘family size’ boxes lasagne sheets
  • 8 medium zucchinis
  • 3kg ricotta
  • 3x 700g bags mozzarella
  • 3x 250g bags shredded parmesan
  • 4x large tins diced tomatoes
  • 1x lemon
  • Fresh basil
  • Olive oil

Method

  • Dice all the onions
  • Dice the zucchinis
  • Mince the garlic

Make the Bolognese sauce

  • Preheat 3 large pots over medium heat (using 3 pots reduces the overall cooking time), then add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil to each pot.
  • Sauté the onions, increase the temp to high and add the beef (splitting across the 3 pots) to brown it.
  • Once it’s browned, add a bottle of passata and a can of diced tomatoes to each pot, and split the last tin between the pots.
  • Reduce heat to a simmer and move on to the zucchini.

Cook the zucchini

  • In a large frying pan (or two), heat some more olive oil over medium heat, add the garlic and diced zucchinis and cook, stirring regularly, until tender, then remove from heat.

Prepare the cheeses

  • Mix the ricotta, 3 bags of parmesan and 2 bags of mozzarella in a large bowl.
  • Add the tomato paste to the Bolognese sauce just before assembly, stirring well.

Assembly

  • Add a scoop of the Bolognese to the bottom of each tray to prevent the lasagne from sticking to the bottom.
  • Top with lasagne noodles, tiled across the top to form a complete a layer. You may need to break off a small corner of each piece to make it fit the pan.
  • Top with a layer of the cheese mix.
  • Place another layer of lasagne noodles on top of the cheese.
  • Add the zucchini, splitting evenly between the 3 pans.
  • Add another layer of lasagne noodles followed by the rest of the cheese mix and another layer of noodles, the top with bolognese sauce then fresh basil and the last bag of mozzarella, split between the 3 pans, then the last bag of parmesan, split across the 3 pans.
  • Bake in an oven at 175C for 40 minutes or until nicely browned and bubbly (if it browns too soon, cover with foil and continue to bake)