“It’s been a real privilege to do this” — pandemic sees chefs, restaurateurs donate thousands of meals
Eating & Drinking

“It’s been a real privilege to do this” — pandemic sees chefs, restaurateurs donate thousands of meals

If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has been the depth of empathy in this city among chefs, restaurant owners, and others in the business for those experiencing food insecurity. 

As soon as lockdown began, out-of-work cooks dealing with the decimation of the industry began to coalesce around initiatives such as Cooking for a Cause, stickhandled by the Parkdale Food Centre, and Food for Thought, a similar initiative led by Joe Thottungal, chef and owner of Coconut Lagoon and Thali. Both have delivered tens of thousands of prepared meals to vulnerable residents, such as senior citizens trapped in their apartments, those living on the street, and people housed in accommodation without cooking facilities. Chefs such as Jessie Duffy at Arlington 5, Jo-Ann Laverty at Marcie’s Cafe, Jessica Carpinone of Bread by Us, Jean Charles of Royal Prince restaurant, Patrick Garland of Absinthe, to name just a few, have all pitched in to offer their skills. 

Jessie Duffy prepares sandwiches at Arlington 5. Photo by Jeff Radbourne

And still others have provided huge quantities of high-quality fresh food all over the city under their own steam. Sheila Whyte at Thyme and Again delivers hundreds of meals every week to the Ottawa Mission and Cornerstone Housing for Women. She’s seen customers who, coming in to buy their own food, write large cheques to support her initiatives. Over at the Red Apron, Jennifer Heagle has provided over 7,000 prepared meals to the Parkdale Food Centre, Somerset Community Health Centre, and Cornerstone Housing for Women, as well as a men’s shelter. She foresees that the program will continue in some form for a long time. “It’s been a real privilege to do this,” she says, “and we’ve heard that some seniors are saying that their health is better and they’ve never eaten so well.” 

Through owner Karla Briones, Freshii Westboro donated hundreds of meals to frontline workers early in the pandemic, while chef Yannick LaSalle continues to offer hearty soups to anybody in need through Les Fougères restaurant in Chelsea. In Mechanicsville, Jason McLelland, the philanthropic chef/owner of the tiny restaurant Grunt has been offering his own outreach to neighbours. “Grunt is in a gentrifying neighbourhood,” he says. “There are plenty of people here who had little before the pandemic — now they have double little. I have an obligation to help where I can.” 

It would be remiss not to mention local farmers too. Juniper Farm, Peabody, and Rideau Pines have been generous with extra produce, getting it into the hands of those who need it most. 

These are stories of love. Building community through food offers strength, support, hope, resources, connection, and warmth to people who have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. “This is one less burden for someone to worry about,” says Thottungal. “It’s simple. A hot meal makes people less apprehensive and happier.”