What goes on behind the scenes at the city’s biggest iftar?

“We run like a German watch,” jokes executive chef Karsten Gottschalk.

And so they have to. Because the team at the Armed Forces Officers Club and Hotel, with chef Karsten at the helm, is responsible for providing iftar for between 20,000 and 30,000 people a day.

Every year since 2004, an army of staff from the hotel has prepared and served meals for worshippers at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque throughout the month of Ramadan.

“The campaign started when we were asked to give food to all the people [who were grieving with the sheikhs] when Sheikh Zayed passed away,” chef Karsten explains.

“It started very small – even [the hotel team] was small then – and over the years we have built it up to what it is now.”

What it is now is a well-oiled machine, with 350 chefs, 160 stewards, 450 staff stationed at the mosque itself, plus many back-of-house team members all playing a specific role to keep everything running smoothly.

“Behind the scenes you don’t see the hygiene teams or the purchasing staff who start about three months in advance to find the right suppliers.

“It’s not only the cooks who are working but the whole organisation, everyone from A to Z like the cost controller, food hygiene officer, even the CEO.”

Beginning work at 4am, daily tasks include rinsing and cooking 9,000kg of rice, cooking up to 10,000kg of chicken and 8,000kg of lamb, as well as chopping 7,000kg of vegetables and cutting and marinating meat for the following day. Food is carefully stored at safe temperatures in heating cabinets in keeping with global food hygiene standards, before it’s collected around 2pm and delivered to the mosque to be held for iftar at sunset.

Every meal contains dates, salad, an apple, vegetable salona, meat or chicken biryani, laban, juice and water.

“The first time I went to the mosque about six years ago, I was so shocked [to see] the first person is there at 5pm and sits in front of their iftar box for two hours,” chef Karsten remarks. “It was summer and I thought, ‘How can people sit there for so long?’ But they just sit there patiently; it’s fantastic.

“When you go to the mosque, you see how many buses are coming from Mussafah, Dubai, Sharjah, all over the UAE. It’s a big attraction for people who are fasting to gather together, pray together – and everyone is welcome, whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Muslim…

“It’s a good thing to have and it keeps the community together.”

WORDS Rachael Perrett

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