The coldest night of the year? You might think it was last weekend, judging from the -30 degree temperatures, but this particular night is a special one: on Saturday, February 20 there will be a fundraiser to raise money for the homeless across Canada. Participants will walk 2, 5, or 10km in support of the homeless during the event, The Coldest Night of the Year.
Downtown, funds raised will go to support the work of the Ottawa Mission Homeless Shelter, which last year housed 1,700 people and served close to 500,000 meals —making it one of the busiest kitchens in the city. At the helm? For the last 15 years it has been Chef Ric Watson.
He was propelled toward the profession by a childhood determination to learn how to cook well. But his stellar achievements at the shelter were attained through a combination of hard work and an unwavering passion for those less fortunate. It was a passion fostered by empathy, having himself overcome a perilous life of drugs, alcohol and homelessness. The Mission’s kitchen now offers him a platform on which to marshal the support of the community and to champion the benefits of a good, well-prepared meal. In addition, he offers a food-training program for students.
Blogger Marc Bazinet, of Cool Food Dude and volunteer at the Mission, spoke with Chef Ric recently to discuss his culinary beginnings, his groundbreaking food training program, and the challenges of feeding people good food – including vegetarians, vegans, and those who are gluten-free – given the high price of vegetables.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
When I was a child, my mother wasn’t a good cook. She would make canned soup in a pot and serve it to my brother and me right out of the pot. So that’s a terrible memory. I think I decided then, because my mother was a horrible cook, that I was going to learn how to cook.
Where did you go to culinary school?
Camosun College in Victoria. And, that’s a story in itself. When I was 14, I found myself pretty much homeless at that time in Kingston. I lived a pretty rough life. There was a guy who took me under his wing and saved my life. He guided me. He said, “You know what? You’ve got talent. But you need to get off the drugs and alcohol, and you need to get your life together.” I started as a dishwasher and moved up the ranks really fast. This guy recommended a school in Victoria. I got sponsored and moved to Victoria and went to school there. … I know what a lot of these people feel—not all of them, but a lot of them. They have nothing, absolutely zero.
Tell me about the Food Services Training Program.
The Training Program started 11 years ago. When I first came to the Mission, I came as a volunteer and never really left. I quickly became the manager and the chef, because I had the skills. Every lunch I would serve on the line. I would see all the clients go through here and I’d talk to them and they’d say, “Can you get me a job? Do you need a dishwasher? I know how to cook.” All my friends that worked in restaurants were looking for dishwashers or prep cooks, so this [program] was such an easy thing to propose: “With all these people coming through the line, let’s just bring them in and train them.” And, we did.
Everything is free for them. We do two courses a year, five months each. Four days a week is practical [training], one day a week is theory. We partner with St-Lawrence College. They help with finding jobs, résumé writing, and so on. Right now we have 13 or 14 students in the program.
Lots of success stories?
Oh my god, there are so many. Sammy is my favourite story. He came here from Ghana. He was a political refugee —hardly spoke any English. When he came to the program, we got him into a course for English as a Second Language and helped him to get his high school diploma, then through the Training Program, and finally through Algonquin College, where he did the two-year Culinary Management course. During that whole time, his wife was back in Ghana. He was here all by himself. He got a job at hospital food services, where he still works. And, he’s also worked for my catering business for the last 10 years. He was able to bring his wife to Canada from Ghana, and now they have two babies, their own house, their own car. She works here full-time… It’s just amazing.
The menu at the Mission —I’ve seen everything from homemade pizzas to turkeys, even croissants for breakfast. How do you get the community to donate food?
I network everywhere I go. I sit on many boards. We had a board meeting at the Lord Elgin this month. I was just on the phone with the chef from the Lord Elgin, and now they want to do a fundraiser for the Mission —a wine tasting with a five-course meal, $75 a ticket. Whenever I talk to people, I tell them about this program. I also sit on a board with the person that runs the main kitchen for Farm Boy. He called me the other day to say he had $2,500 worth of salmon at a point where it could no longer be sold. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with it. Would you like it?” That’s how it happens. That’s how we get a lot of our stuff.
So you’re constantly looking for opportunities to help the Mission.
Yes. Right now, it’s probably the most trying time that I have had in my career of 15 years here, because food is so expensive. Food costs are up 10 percent. It’s crazy. First it was meat, now it’s vegetables. In November, I paid $40 for a case of green onions, last week I paid $89.50. I paid $39.50 for celery in December. The other day I paid $89. So how do we cope? We just have to cut back a bit. I have some prices locked-in for frozen vegetables, so that helps.
You also run a catering business, which is tied to the Training Program.
Here at the Mission, catering [experience] is essential for the students because we can’t let them leave here without knowing how to cater. Every organization asks for catering at some point. If the students know how to cater, it’s easier for them to find jobs. The catering budget is totally separate from the Mission’s budget. All of the food items for catering is paid with money made from catering. Whatever money is left-over from catering is put back into the program.
Who uses the Mission’s catering services?
This year we catered Parliament Hill, many City of Ottawa events, as well as weddings.
How has what you do at the Mission changed since you started working there?
It’s much more professional. The kitchen has tripled in size. It’s a commercial kitchen now. Before it was just pieces of stuff put together.
The Mission serves about 1,300 meals a day. In my time as a volunteer, I’ve seen some weird donations come in, such as 77 lbs of pomelos (citrus fruit the size of grapefruits) and 15 cases of tuna. How do you make a meal out of that?
It’s difficult. With donations, you either get a lot of something or you get a tiny, tiny bit. You have to serve it in an interesting way and not waste anything. The team’s amazing at doing that. They have to have the ability to combine different things to make it delicious.
How do you accommodate different dietary concerns?
We do vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to eat what is good for you or to choose what you want. People say, “Well if you’re hungry, you’re hungry.” Yeah, ok, but you still should have the right to not eat meat or pork, or to eat good proteins. Homeless people aren’t just alcoholics or drug addicts or the mentally ill. Many are people that didn’t make it. They fell through the cracks. Everybody counts. Everybody!
Tell me more about the Coldest Night of the Year
It’s a walking fundraiser that raises money for the hungry and homeless in 100+ communities across Canada. The walk will be held on Saturday, February 20th. All the money we raise goes towards the Mission. It’s a good fundraiser. It increases the public’s awareness about homelessness and about people outside on cold nights. As for the participants, they get to feel a hint of the challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness—particularly during the winter. Remember how cold it was last year?