COVID-19 has changed the way we socialise and celebrate, but it doesn't mean this festive season has to be any less special. We speak to four people who have always done Christmas a little differently.
For many chefs, Christmas is a time to shut-up shop – but not for Guy Grossi, who's been hosting his triple-threat December 25 extravaganza since he started running his restaurant Florentino 21 years ago. Most years, the build-up to Christmas runs strong from the spring racing carnival right up until Christmas Day. "It's always busy, but also such a rewarding time of year," he says.
This year will be a little different, but Grossi still believes that whatever the festive season looks like for each of us, the most important thing will be coming together – particularly for those in Melbourne. "One of the greatest things we can do is come together and socialise. Most people have been starved of this in 2020," he says. "This Christmas, there will be restrictions and it will look different. But I hope that we can take time out with our family, just to take the focus away from the problems of 2020."
Grossi is a man of tradition, and he is still holding out hope that he'll be able to carry out the Christmas customs he, his staff and his family have practised for years.
Typically, the chef hosts a three-pronged Christmas event: for his staff, his customers, and his nearest and dearest. "Every year, I make sure the team sits down for Christmas lunch. It's really about doing a beautiful, simple family meal to take a moment to share before service," says Grossi. Each year the menu changes, whether it's roast chicken and all the trimmings, a beautiful shared pasta or cotoletta [veal schnitzel]. It also offers a moment of calm before the rush of lunch service, which sees around 90 jolly guests file into Florentino for a multi-course feast.
"Often it's the same guests year after year, and they hold their tables. Many of them actually know each other," says Grossi. Plates of antipasti, crab salad and turkey are served, before diving into Grossi's signature crisp-skinned suckling pig. Finally after the last bits of panettone are devoured, Grossi heads home for the family Christmas dinner. There, he sits down with his wife Melissa, their children Loredana and Carlo, extended family and some longstanding team members (around 35 people all together). "It's an action-packed day but I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. They share plates of fresh seafood, a pasta course ("It's not an Italian Christmas without pasta") and Christmas pudding before heading to bed early after a marathon of a day.
When it comes to advice for hosting a great festive gathering, Grossi suggests keeping some simple tasks at the end to involve guests, whether it's chopping herbs, making a dressing or plating something. "The family table is so much more than just sustenance," Grossi adds. "It's where you go to get emotional sustenance, and this year is going to be more important than ever."
Christmas can be a difficult time of year for some people, but especially for those who have fled domestic violence. Which is why the team at Two Good Co go above and beyond when it comes to the festive season, helping to create new traditions and foster a sense of connection within their community.
"If a woman has the courage to leave an abusive husband, you still miss his parents, or his sister, or their nieces," explains patron chef Jane Strode. "When they leave these situations, they have to leave it all. That can be devastating. Then they come into this space, where people have gone through similar things. And they feel heard and listened to."
Founded by Rob Caslick in 2015, Two Good Co offers training and employment to women who have escaped domestic violence, through their catering business and food delivery services.
"We're not just providing food, but love and respect," says Caslick. "That's why we work with top chefs and collaborate with respected brands. It's to demonstrate to the women who come into this program that even if they've experienced hardship, here they're loved and respected."
Food is at the heart of what Two Good does and at Christmas time, it becomes the focal point as the company hosts two major events. The first is for anyone doing it tough in the wider community. "For our Christmas party at our soup kitchen in Kings Cross, we put on a spit-roasted lamb from Feather and Bone and Gelato Messina bring beautiful gelato and we do a really big spread," says Caslick.
They also do a special Christmas party for the women in their training program, past and present. "They need that love and this is why we serve the best quality food. At Christmas time we're going to be laying it on as thick as possible," says Strode.
Going all in at Christmas time has been a long-running theme for Strode, whose mother owned a catering business and was known for welcoming as many people as possible on Christmas day, even if meant BYO seating.
"We'd have all these orphans, the neighbours, my mum's best friend's had people over, along with family. We never said no to anyone. People would bring their own chairs and cutlery, because we'd run out of those things. But there was plenty of food. You'd just make it happen – and that's what Christmas is all about."
The magic of making it happen on the day comes down to preparation, says Strode. "Practise the dish! Have things you can make the day before. It's summer time so do a cold starter that can be done the night before."
Practicalities aside, Strode and Caslick know the secret to making any shared meal special is to create an environment where everyone feels welcome. "I'll always remember – I was at the soup kitchen, and a guy said to me: 'What I love about this place is that for one hour each week, I don't feel homeless.' It reminded me of why we do this."
As a young Jewish-Australian, chef Candy Berger observes both Hanukkah and Christmas. This may sound unusual, but with her catering background and a grandmother that will take any excuse to put on a feast, it's not surprising.
Growing up in London, Berger was raised in a progressive Orthodox household. "We always went to synagogue. We never celebrated Christmas, and we did Hanukkah." Later, her family moved to Santa Barbara, where her mum started a Jewish-focused catering company. This would go on to spark the inspiration for Berger's own businesses, Lox in A Box – a specialty bagel shop in Bondi – and catering company Fed Kitchen.
Eventually, Candy and her family moved to Australia, where they started to celebrate Christmas despite not having any religious connection to the holiday. "My grandma, who is an amazing cook and still a private chef at 83, does a Christmas lunch every year for 50-odd people," she says. There is no tree or presents but sharing in the joy of the time of the year has become its own special family tradition. "Really, any excuse to have the family together, and we'll take it," says Berger. The Christmas season also came to play a significant role in her business as well. "Clients would ask me to do Christmas dinners and lunches, so I learned how to do turkeys, giant glazed hams; the whole thing."
For Berger, Hanukkah remains the most central end-of-year holiday. "Hanukkah's symbolism represents the soul and the flame of the Jewish people living on," she says. Celebrated across eight days and nights, Berger's family gather for meals and sometimes presents. And although it's not as big as it was when she was growing up, it's still important. "You eat food cooked in oil to symbolise the oil lamp and the menorah candle, so latkes [potato pancakes], doughnuts and other traditional Jewish things," she says. "The sentiments are similar to Christmas. Gathering together, enjoying food, and making the story what you want of it."
Whether it's Hanukkah or Christmas, Berger says the sentiment that connects both is food. "Food for me is about gathering together. It's such a common thread for everybody. You can sit down with anyone and you'll have something to talk about if you talk about food. It's a common ground."
Her secret to making everyone feel welcome? "Share plates are a beautiful way to bring people together," she says. "Having a single-plated meal can feel a bit formal. It's nice to have smaller lots of share plates that you share with 2-3 people."
And while this year may feel different, Berger hopes people can embrace the special side of smaller events. "This year will be different. At the same time, this leaves room to have more intimate gatherings, and honest conversations."
"I think we'll all get to the end of this year, and really reflect and think about it honestly. People often go through life with their eyes closed, and this has made us all really open them up, and open our eyes to the experience of others."