Why are chefs stepping out of the kitchen?

February 10 2017

Tanzania-born book author and social change advocate Nick Saul is the President, Co-Founder and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada – a Toronto-based national non-profit that builds and supports vibrant spaces in low-income communities that bring people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food for all.

While working at The Stop Community Food Centre, from 1988 to 2012, Nick and his team worked hard to flip the switch on what is possible in low-income communities when it comes to nutrition and health, foregrounding better food for all. Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC) was founded to develop more Community Food Centres like The Stop across the country. There are now eight Community Food Centres across Canada, and CFCC also works with more than 100 community food security organizations to create better health, skills, and belonging in low-income communities.

What separates an operation like Community Food Centres Canada from your typical food bank?

“At CFCC, we strive to create generous dignified spaces where people can sit down, eat the best meal they’ve ever had and realize, ‘wow, there are so many things I can be doing here.’ These safe spaces are for people to get on their feet, whatever that looks like, while connecting with each other and being free to talk about why they’re vulnerable in the first place. This is not because there is a lack of food in the world. People are struggling to put food on their table because of low minimum wages, inadequate social assistance rates and housing that’s far too expensive; the list goes on.”

Chefs in communities around Toronto have had a long-standing, high level of respect for both yourself and CFCC with many participating in your fundraisers and food events. Why do you think you have such a loyal, active following?

“What we do at CFCC is nourishing people, creating health and commensality around the table which is also what chefs do. The chefs we want and like to work with understand that food is not just a commodity, it is a fuel that gets you from A to B but is also enveloped in wonderful things like health, connection, and pleasure.

Even though restaurant chefs are busy as heck and caught in the paradigm of having to charge $12 or $18 for food, when you strip it all down, they just want to create happiness and connections with people through food. When we ask them to come help with an event, they show up, work hard and leave truly believing in what we do.”

With chefs living such busy lives, it’s easy for them to get into the habit of not leaving their given kitchens. Why would a chef choose to participate in an organization like CFCC?

“The chefs we work with understand that the world is far bigger than their kitchen and that it’s important for them to engage with it. Community Food Centres and Good Food Organizations are so proud to be working with these restaurants, and together being at the forefront of a larger conversation about how we can make sure everyone has access to good food in this country.

They see themselves not only within this network of chefs but in a larger community that’s trying to build a voice and volume around creating a healthier and more equitable society. While they might not always have all the time in the world to be away from their kitchen on the frontlines, we’re trying to create many different ways for them to participate in the change we’re trying to create.

With new chefs coming out of the woodwork in cycles from schools and work placements across the country, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find at least one of their culinary heroes at the helm of a Community Food Centres Canada event. Seeing these experts lead by example would surely inspire others to follow. If this happens, what does it take for them to get involved in something like this?

“We’re always hunting for good people who are committed, true and genuine. That’s a constant I see as part of my job. If a chef is interested in what we do, they can contact myself or Danielle Goldfinger, our Events Manager, via email. We do a lot of events and the key is chefs who take a willing interest in CFCC. If they want to be engaged and learn more, we can create plenty of outlets for them to feel a part of our large network and efforts toward building a more equitable society.”

What should chefs think about before getting involved in a charitable event or cause?

"I think the most important thing is for a chef to feel like they're personally drawn to the cause or event and see it as important — they need to know their “why.” Taking some time to learn about what a charity or organization does is also important, as it'll help to guide their choices about where, and with whom, they want to invest their time. Finally, understanding the time commitment associated with the charity or organization of interest is crucial as a chef must ensure they are able to dedicate themselves to the project.”

When chefs and other volunteers work with CFCC, what are the major actions being driven by such efforts?

“Overall, there are three things we do; build Community Food Centres across the country that build better health, hope, and belonging; support a network of 100 Good Food Organizations in 56+ cities to offer impactful and empowering food programs; and work with our community members to make change in the public policy realm and get loud about how the food system needs to change.

An Afterword from Chef Loseto:

“While we work together to give back, knowing that people take pleasure in food, our experience is about way more than just cooking. To me, it’s about the positive experiences through food which is what makes CFCC so great and necessary! It gives people access to amazing food.”