Eating & Drinking

Operation Come Home’s FoodWorks program trains ‘youth at risk’ to be future chefs

It’s a typical Wednesday morning in the kitchen of Centretown United Church. For about an hour, chef Bruce Wood has been prepping for the day at FoodWorks, a social enterprise that trains young people to work in professional kitchens.

Now, at 10 a.m., his five staffers — aged 18 to 26 — are starting to filter in for their four-hours shifts.

Referred by social service agencies such as Operation Come Home, which helped launch FoodWorks in 2015, the staffers are all “youth at risk” — a term that does nothing to capture their stories. They work here for six months for a small wage, and while they learn valuable skills, it’s clear many are also drawn by the non-judgemental support they get from Wood and other adults at FoodWorks.

Rachel,* 22, loved FoodWorks so much that she came back to volunteer after her six-month stint ended. “I missed working with Bruce. He’s honestly one of my favourite people”. Photo: Ben Welland
Rachel,* 22, loved FoodWorks so much that she came back to volunteer after her six-month stint ended. “I missed working with Bruce. He’s honestly one of my favourite people”. Photo: Ben Welland

“You’re a day late, pumpkin,” Wood says without rancour to Rachel* as she rushes into the kitchen, a ball of nervous energy. They envelop each other in a bear hug. She explains didn’t make it in yesterday because she was trying to resolve a billing dispute with her cell phone company.

“Misery-faced peckerheads,” Wood commiserates. Rachel smiles as she ties on an apron.

A former staffer, she returned later as a volunteer. “I just generally missed working with Bruce,” she says. “He’s honestly probably one of my favourite people.”

Wood has been working in kitchens since he started as a teenage apprentice in 1981. After completing the culinary program at George Brown College, he worked in restaurants and cooking schools across Canada. This gig, though, has changed his views on kitchen management.

Chef Bruce Wood has had to adapt his teaching style for FoodWorks, as many of the youth recoil at the sound of a raised voice. “It’s changed the way that I tend to approach things”. Photo: Ben Welland
Chef Bruce Wood has had to adapt his teaching style for FoodWorks, as many of the youth recoil at the sound of a raised voice. “It’s changed the way that I tend to approach things”. Photo: Ben Welland

“Professional kitchens [are] not always the most diplomatic [places],” he says.

He recalls an incident from his early days at FoodWorks in 2017, when a task wasn’t going as planned.

“I didn’t swear or yell at anybody directly, but I raised my voice to try and make a point. And one of the kids shut right down.” Wood listened to the staffer and apologized, then they finished the task together. “They’d never really had anybody apologize or acknowledge that their feelings were important…and I think it went a long way to making a bond.”

Indeed, although Wood loves a good profanity (“I have a very kitchen mouth,” he admits) he doesn’t shout once as the day progresses. Staffers hustle from fridges to counters to stoves, chopping kale and melting butter. The aromas of banana bread and roasted corn fill the warm kitchen.

 Julie Cugalj, a government policy analyst, volunteers with FoodWorks. “It’s a very empowering environment,” she says, explaining that the young participants gain confidence as their kitchen skills improve. “I’ve seen people come in and be quickly transformed”. Photo: Ben Welland
Julie Cugalj, a government policy analyst, volunteers with FoodWorks. “It’s a very empowering environment,” she says, explaining that the young participants gain confidence as their kitchen skills improve. “I’ve seen people come in and be quickly transformed”. Photo: Ben Welland

In a surprisingly short time, the food is ready to be packed into delivery containers. Everyone enjoys a hearty lunch from their efforts.

FoodWorks began by making fresh meals for delivery to downtown homes and businesses. While it still delivers about 20 meals a day, three times a week, Wood is working to expand the kitchen’s steadier, more lucrative catering business. So far, the main clients have been non-profit groups, service clubs and other organizations interested in getting good food while supporting a good cause.

Participants learn how to plate food appealingly for clients such as the Ottawa Writers Festival. Ben Welland
Participants learn how to plate food appealingly for clients such as the Ottawa Writers Festival. Photo: Ben Welland

According to staffers, the “good cause” is paying off.

Operation Come Home referred Dee* to FoodWorks when she was looking for a job. “Look how far I’ve come now, in less than eight months. I have a place, I have a job, I’m doing good, I’m getting healthier,” she says with evident pride. “Now I know how to cook vegan food!”

* Names have been changed.

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