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How to feed 20,000 people in one sitting

By Zahraa Alkhalisi, CNN
updated 2:47 PM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For most people in the United Arab Emirates, the holy month of Ramadan is a restful time
  • But not for Karsten Gottschalk, executive chef at the Armed Forces Officers Club & Hotel in Abu Dhabi
  • His team feeds 20,000 people a day during Ramadan -- 600,000 meals through the month
  • By month's end, 800,000 kilos of food will have been prepared in the kitchen

Abu Dhabi (CNN) -- For most people working in the United Arab Emirates, the holy month of Ramadan is a restful time. It is a month of fasting, reduced working hours, family time and quiet religious contemplation.

But not for Karsten Gottschalk. He's the executive chef at the Armed Forces Officers Club & Hotel in Abu Dhabi, and it's his busiest time of year.

Gottschalk's job during Ramadan is to feed at least 20,000 people every day. That means preparing more than 600,000 meals throughout the month.

"It's a lot of food," says Gottschalk. First thing he does is "get my calculator out and start calculating what I need."

Women pray at a Lahore, Pakistan, mosque during the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Friday, August 9. Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Women pray at a Lahore, Pakistan, mosque during the first day of the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Friday, August 9. Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Ramadan around the world
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Photos: Ramadan around the world Photos: Ramadan around the world

During the holy month, followers of the Muslim faith fast by refraining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The month of Ramadan starts 10 days earlier every year, based on the Islamic lunar calendar.

Ramadan explained

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque commissions Gottschalk's kitchen to prepare meals for people to break their fast at the mosque.

Gottschalk leads a 500-strong team in the kitchen, and cooking starts at 6 a.m.

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During the working day, 7,000 kilos of vegetables are peeled and diced, 5,000 kilos of rice boiled in vast pots and 10,000 chickens cut in two and roasted.

The business of Ramadan

By the end of the month, 800,000 kilos of food will have been prepared in the kitchen.

Time matters for Gottschalk. Every slice and dice is done by the clock, until all meals are packaged and date-stamped by 3 p.m.

The food is then transported in heated trolleys aboard trucks to the mosque, a short drive away.

The meals are given out for free. During the weekend up to 35,000 people join the feast, to which both Muslims and non-Muslims are welcome.

Every person receives a box which includes rice topped with half a chicken, a vegetable stew, a portion of salad, an apple, a yoghurt drink, a fruit juice and some water.

The meals must be kept warm, distributed and ready to eat the minute the sun goes down, which is marked by a call to prayer.

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"The challenge is that we are doing it over a month," says Gottschalk. "It's not a day or two event. It's consistency over one month of Ramadan."

He adds: "We have to give our fasting friends a lot of good food. Every day the same standard, the same quality."

The guests sit on the floor across eleven air-conditioned tents outside the mosque to protect against temperatures which can reach up to 45 degrees Celsius during the U.A.E. summer.

They then tuck into delicacies prepared over so many hours by Gottschalk's team, continuing a tradition that was begun by the ruling family of the U.A.E. at the mosque nine years ago.

Back then, 4,000 meals were given out a day. The numbers are far bigger now -- and Ramadan is unlikely to get any quieter for Gottschalk.

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