Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Catering to community: 3 chefs cook up plans for social change

Recipes for addressing poverty, tackling waste and getting young lives back on track

As any chef will tell you, food is a powerful tool for comforting and connecting people. It’s at the heart of what they do and why they do it. But some are taking the idea a step further, using their skills and experience as key ingredients for giving back to the community.

We talked to three Alberta chefs who use their talents not just to feed customers, but to nurture and support people in need. Whether feeding homeless people at a drop-in centre, working to prevent  food waste, or teaching youth kitchen skills in tandem with life skills, these alumni are using food to build community, one meal at a time.

Dinner for 1,000

Glen Pereira
Kitchen manager, Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre

glen pereira, kitchen manager, calgary drop-in and rehab centreGlen Pereira never imagined he’d be feeding the homeless at a Calgary drop-in centre.

The 44-year-old chef (Culinary Arts ’00) spent much of his career cooking for well-heeled guests on cruise ships and in hotels. But six years ago, the northeast Calgary hotel where he worked went bankrupt and was purchased for low-income housing by the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre.

He was offered a job as kitchen manager at the organization’s downtown drop-in centre – known locally as the DI – feeding some 1,000 people a day.

“I said, ‘Hell no, I’m a hotel guy. I don’t know anything about non-profits,’” he recalls. But the more he thought about it and discussed it with his wife, the more he saw an opportunity for a fulfilling career.

Pereira grew up in Mumbai, a city where millions live in poverty, with little government assistance.

“In India, if you don’t work, you’re starving and you’re dead,” he says. “When I [first] saw people here looking for a handout, to me that was succumbing to your situation rather than going out and getting a job and doing something about it.”

But his perspective changed as he began working at the DI.

“I realize that people are here for all kinds of reasons, some beyond their control. You get to know them – each one’s story is so different. That judgmental attitude of mine has gone out the window.”

"That judgmental attitude of mine has gone out the window.”

Pereira oversees five staff members and an ever-changing army of volunteers, preparing about 3,000 meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus two snacks and two coffee services – all on a budget of about $2 per person per day.

Some of the food comes from the Calgary food bank and donors; Pereira must constantly improvise with the ingredients on hand, creating the heartiest, most nutritious meals he can.

On a recent day, breakfast is cereal, milk and fruit (“bananas and oranges, because our guys don’t have teeth to eat apples,” he explains); lunch is perogies and smokies; supper is spaghetti with meat sauce, salad and a bun.

At first, he found the work daunting. Sometimes he’d plan for 800 clients at lunch and 1,200 would show up. But he’s learned to adapt. “We always have something in the freezer or the fridge that we can whip up quickly. We never turn anyone away.”

Pereira’s flexibility and his willingness to collaborate are among his greatest strengths, says Vicki Hauser, director of engagement at the centre.

When the centre had no sponsor for Thanksgiving dinner this year, Pereira reached out to the Calgary Food Bank, which gave him frozen turkeys and pumpkin pie for clients to enjoy.

“He’s been great at building partnerships and relationships with other non-profits,” says Hauser.

When Pereira found himself with two palettes of donated, homemade sandwiches and no extra space in the freezer or fridges, he called other social agencies, arranging for trucks and drivers to transport the excess food, all on a Friday evening after work.

Pereira and his kitchen staff “know that they’re making a difference,” she adds. “The clients will literally be saying ‘thank you for the food’ and ‘thank you for spending time with us.’”

While the ingredients, the meals and the clients he works with are worlds away from his former life, the job itself is much the same, Pereira says. “I make the best meal I can, but now the focus is not on profit; the focus is on nourishing people.

“Before, someone would come up to me and say, ‘That was the best steak I ever had,’ but the happiness I would get from that wouldn’t last long. Here, I’ve taken more than I’ve given. It’s taught me to be humble and thankful but I have a long way to go still.”

Nothing wasted

Daniel Huber
Independent culinary consultant

daniel huber, culinary consultantEdmonton chef Daniel Huber is known for his strong opinions about the local food scene. So, when he complained to a relative about the prevalence of food waste, shecalled him on it. Why not help out a Calgary group that redistributes leftover food, and which was looking for help to expand to Edmonton?

Huber (Cook ’10), who has worked in restaurants for 20 years and is now a consultant for other restaurants, established the organization’s Edmonton chapter, Leftovers YEG, about a year ago.

The group now has almost 50 volunteers, about half of whom do regular weekly routes, picking up excess food from vendors including Cobs bakery, Good Earth Coffeehouse and Blush Lane Organics and redistributing it to social agencies for people in need. Leftovers focuses mostly on perishables – unprocessed, raw and “low-risk” prepared foods, including dairy, produce and baked goods. They move about 1,000 pounds of food each week.

“People might think [chefs] waste a lot of food, but it’s the opposite,” says Huber. ”We can’t waste or we lose our businesses. It dawned on me that I can use my skill set to help other people figure out how to do the same thing.”

“He’s a really dynamic person with a passion for food and food security,” says Lourdes Juan, founder of the Leftovers Foundation in Calgary. “What Daniel did for the organization as a volunteer was pretty incredible.”

“His strength lies in community building and public relations with the media and service agencies and vendors. You need that pitch person to advocate for the organization and he definitely is that guy.”

"You need that pitch person to advocate for the organization and he definitely is that guy.”

Leftovers YEG recently received funding for a full-time staff member to run the operation, so Huber has left to tackle the problem in other ways, such as trying to reduce food waste through education.

Through Sustainable Food Edmonton, a non-profit group that supports urban agricultural programs like community gardens in schools, Huber met recently with elementary and junior high teachers to help them teach students how to cut down on food waste. The average Edmontonian’s garbage contains between 22 and 26 per cent food waste, according to the city of Edmonton. Nationally, the estimated annual cost of food waste is $31 billion.

Huber is also pushing for better access to less expensive food. He hopes to see a mobile grocery market in Edmonton similar to the one launched in Calgary this summer by the Leftovers Foundation. The truck drives to neighbourhoods deemed “food deserts” – areas with poor access to nutritious and affordable food – providing an easy source of inexpensive groceries. He’s pushing for Edmonton city councillors to repurpose Northlands Park and the Expo Centre as a food hub – a central source of inexpensive food, provided by wholesalers directly to the public.

He vacations in Cuba every year and is always struck by the limited availability of basic foods, even for foreigners with money to spend. “I come home and go to a grocery store and I want to roll around in the oranges,” Huber says.

He’s frustrated that in Canada, a country of such abundance, there are people who don’t have enough good food to eat. “I think Canadians are better than this problem, so it does stick in my craw. This is not a complex issue. This is a very basic thing.”

Meals and mentorship

brian mcbride, chef, hallway cafe, edmonton city hallBrian McBride
Chef and mentor, The Hallway Café

Brian McBride has loved cooking for people ever since his first job as a teen in a shabby diner, paid in cash under the table. “I got to create something with my hands, and I got instant gratification and feedback from customers,” he says.

Since then, he’s spent almost 24 years working as a chef in large hotels and high-end restaurants, and as a consultant opening new businesses. But the daily grind of balance sheets and profit margins wore him down.

“The focus on profit level all the time, it changes your mindset for how you approach daily living,” he says.

McBride (Culinary Arts ’99) decided it was time for a change.

He used his skills and experience, along with his interest in teaching, to take on a new challenge – working with at-risk youth at Hallway Café, a unique social enterprise that combines a youth outreach and education program with a café at Edmonton City Hall.

The café, which opened in February, is the updated and reimagined version of Kids in the Hall, a program that worked with at-risk youth to run a restaurant in city hall for about 20 years. The space has been redesigned as a counter-service café, with coffee, snacks and light meals prepared and sold by youth in the program. It also offers catering.

McBride and a team of experts from schools andindustry developed the curriculum for the program, which accommodates up to 50 people aged 16 to 24 each year. Youth are referred from a variety of social agencies, and first undergo an assessment to make sure they’re ready for the 17-week program.

They work at the café to develop cooking skills, but also learn life skills like resumé writing, money management and teamwork.

Those who haven’t finished high school can attend classes in a nearby room in City Hall – part of the Fresh Start program offered through Edmonton Catholic Schools. Last year, four of the teens working in the café also earned their high school diplomas.

The youth receive training in communication skills and anger management, along with food handling certification and AGLC ProServe certification (to serve liquor) for those over 18. “We’re trying to build assets for the kids to use when they graduate,” explains McBride.

Two outreach workers are also available to provide support not just to participants in the work-experience program but to former participants and friends of those in the program. They serve about 200 youth each year.

What has struck McBride most about his new role is its similarity to the ‘real world’ of restaurant life – the comraderie in the kitchen and the pleasure in cooking for customers, tempered by the darker side of alcohol and drug abuse, mental health struggles and conflict at home.

“It’s a lot of the same challenges and barriers I’ve seen with other employees,” he explains. “Working in hospitality, I’ve had staff with substance abuse issues, or who were couch surfing because they didn’t have a place to live. The only difference I’m seeing now is a matter of five years in age.”

As a boss and colleague, McBride always tried to give advice and support to staff struggling with financial, emotional and health issues. He’s a natural teacher who enjoys mentoring apprentices in his kitchen and has studied education as well as culinary arts.

“He’s really good at teaching and he’s good with taking things slow – he doesn’t get frustrated,” says River Bylholt, who recently completed the program. She completed high school but suffered from depression for several years and was living on welfare when her cousin, who used to work at Kids in the Hall, referred her to the Hallway Café.

“It’s been so good here, I don’t ever want to leave.”

“It’s been so good here, I don’t ever want to leave,” says Bylholt, sitting in the sunny café on a break from serving coffee during one of her final shifts. “Part of it is the cooking and the service but the big part for me is feeling so welcome. For those few years, I was very down, and here I was coming into such a positive environment.”

For McBride, the experience is a continuation of the passion for food and learning he discovered as a teenager.

“Being able to work with youth is very fulfilling – seeing things click with them every day. It’s like an open kitchen where you get to see someone enjoy your food. Here,

I’m getting to see someone progress in life, and being an impactful part of that is fantastic,” he says.

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