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.

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