Vancouver’s Iron Chefs

Let me introduce a few of Vancouver’s Iron Chefs. The original Japanese Iron Chef was a cooking show where guest chefs competed to make a meal with an unknown set of ingredients that would be judged for its taste and visual appeal. Here in Vancouver, we have people who have made a career of such a challenge.

Every day a creative, committed crew of cooks make their way to their kitchens in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES). They do not know how many hungry people will show up for the next meal, nor how many guests will be struggling with an addiction, mental illness, the stress of poverty, or a trauma that can make their actions unpredictable.

These chefs also do not always know what ingredients they will have to work with that day. In the world of charitable food programs and food recovery, cooks quickly learn adaptability and resourcefulness as they turn donations of food that may be close to its expiry date into a meal that will nourish some of our most vulnerable neighbours.

Like all large foodservice operations, these kitchens are exceptionally busy, with only a brief calm between cleaning up one meal and starting the next. The kitchen managers trouble shoot today’s problems, plan for tomorrow, schedule staff for next week, build relationships with donors so there will be food next month, and orient the volunteers who were expected to arrive an hour ago. Then, if there is still time, they take a lunch break.

There is no manual on how to run a food program in a neighbourhood as unique as the DTES. Mostly, we learn by doing. And we learn from each other. Several of the head chefs, kitchen managers, dietitians, and food advocates from the neighbourhood, including Union Gospel Mission, Belkin House (Salvation Army), First United Community Ministry Society, Door is Open (Catholic Charities), Harbour Light (Salvation Army), the DTES Kitchen Tables Project, and Planted: a community food network have been meeting together to share ideas and encourage each other as we move toward more nourishing, dignified, and sustainable food programs.

One issue we are working on together is to find best practices before the pending organic waste ban in 2015. Several of the organizations are already composting, but with an already stretched budget, hard decisions are made between buying more quality protein and funding a compost program. The City is working to support the charitable food sector, but it will take all of us working together to find systems that work.

To learn more, contact Karen Giesbrecht.

Inclusion is the New Fusion Cooking

Simeon, or Community Kitchen Coordinator, shares what he has learned about the benefits of inclusion – Vancouver-based cooking lessons from around the world:

“I don’t remember ever being ‘taught’ to cook. I just followed my mother, and later my grandmother, picking things up as I went along. They were mainly ‘meat/potatoes/veg’ recipes…I wasn’t exposed to other cultures. It’s been refreshing learning about other methods. Some I will adopt at home” – South Granville Volunteers Community Kitchen participant.

I (Simeon) come from a mixed-race, or other “rooted” cultural background (as I’ve come to call it). For me, this meant I grew up experiencing food heritage from areas that literally, seemed worlds apart. As a longtime foodie, I also spent a lot of my childhood in the kitchen helping to prepare the foods I loved to eat.

My early memories, real or picked up from photographs, include walking in pyjamas to get savoury Chinese donuts to eat with a congee breakfast. Visiting grandparents always included a trip to a local pub – the “Bluebells” or “Fox & Hounds”, to eat scampi or fish and chips.

Traditional Sunday roast lunch meant roast potatoes nestled in there with a bed of rice next to beef, lamb, chicken or pheasant. In my uni years, I became known as the “uncle” of the house, who would look after his roommates by cooking pineapple fried rice (in the pineapple) with satay and beefy white rice noodles with broccoli. And I feel truly blessed to have experienced this inclusive culinary dining table throughout my life.

So this is how I facilitate the community kitchens I am involved with – I ask the participants for ideas from their own childhoods, from times when they have cooked for friends or family, or more recently from restaurant menus when they have dined out and want to learn how to cook a specific dish that is “exotic”, to them.

This means that over the past year or so, I have had the pleasure of enjoying meals inspired by cultures from around the world but all present here in Vancouver, courtesy of community kitchen participants. The feasts include an authentic Japanese sushi-making class, a “trip” to the horn of Africa with Ethiopian chicken and egg Doro Wat eaten with injera (sourdough flatbread), experiencing what “marriage” means in El Salvador with mixed beans, rice and sausage “el casamiento”, and mashing the ingredients for a Dutch boerenkool and worst stamppot (kale and wurst, mashed potato).

“It’s nice to have a variety of things to choose from [over the months at the South Granville Volunteers Community Kitchen], which has greatly expanded my knowledge. Allowing members to choose the next meal plan and…introduce new foods has excited me. I think most of us benefit from inclusion in the process.”

For me, inclusion has meant experiencing a rich and diverse tapestry of food heritage and personal experience – coming by many different routes, but rooted locally, in Vancouver’s growing community kitchen movement.