Decades before the Chef Jeff Project and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, a small group of dedicated chefs began an initiative to help Torontonians on social assistance learn the skills needed to work and thrive as professional cooks. Twenty-five years later, the Basic Culinary Skills Training Program‘s current director Kelvin Ramjattan and his crew of experienced and hard-working instructors—Adam Lariviere, Dan Prewer, and Kathy Marinkovic—are continuing to help change the lives of fifteen new students every three months in a fully equipped, industrial kitchen at the YMCA on Charles Street.
Basic Culinary Skills Training instructors (L-R): Adam Lariviere, Dan Prewer, Kathy Marinkovic, Kelvin Ramjattan (Director).
Without any advertising at all, save through referrals from social-services agencies, the program typically attracts upwards of ninety applicants for the fifteen spots. All prospective students first come for an orientation, followed by two days of shadowing in the kitchen where they can see if it’s really the kind of work they’d like to do, and if they’re ready. “We tell them to test drive us, like they would a car,” says Ramjattan. “Then while they’re checking us out, we’re checking them out. How well do they take instruction? Are they enjoying themselves? Are they here on time? We want to make sure those fifteen seats go to the right people.”
Once accepted, all trainees rotate through different stations, which are identical to those found in restaurant kitchens: salads, soups, vegetables, entrées, bakery, sandwiches/salad bar, and—of course—dishes. Every student spends a week at the dish station because, as Ramjattan says, it’s “the heartbeat. It’s where you begin to understand and respect the kitchen.”
Unlike at a typical culinary school, the program’s trainees are required, almost immediately, to produce food for real clients, such as Meals on Wheels and the YMCA cafe in the building. Also, these students cook every single day for the entire three months instead of once per week, which is the norm for first-years at many colleges. This hands-on training—combined with individual attention from instructors with years of gritty, real-life restaurant experience—puts these cooks at the head of the pack in their quest for employment in the food industry.
On top of the practical cooking skills, the program includes both formal and informal soft-skills training that includes—among other things—resume-writing, interviewing, time management, and conflict resolution. Largely led by job-skills counsellor Uzma Mehdi, this part helps ensure that graduates not only find employment, but keep it as well. “They might go out there and find that perfect job,” Ramjattan says, “but if they don’t like a guy they’re working with, well, how do they deal with it? We want to set them up so they can deal with that, and keep their jobs.”
Almost five years ago, Ramjattan enhanced the program even further by making the facility one of Second Harvest‘s “Harvest Kitchens.” Second Harvest delivers donated fresh ingredients to the YMCA and—as part of the training program—the students use them to prepare dishes that are later expedited to agencies (shelters, etc.) that either don’t have any kitchen facilities, or can’t afford to run them.
Aside from supporting the charity, being a Harvest Kitchen actually complements the training program itself. Second Harvest is fortunate to count several luxury operations as donors, so items like foie gras, truffles, and hybrid vegetables have been known to get delivered, thereby exposing the trainees to different cooking methods and techniques. Also, the instructors and students alike never know what will arrive in the Second Harvest truck on any given morning, making every day at the Harvest Kitchen station like Iron Chef. The students look at the ingredients and cook using only their skills and creativity (no recipes). “Some love to create and cook off the top of their heads; others want the recipe,” says Ramjattan. “You just want them to think, ‘what can I do with this?'”
Every single one of the program’s most recent graduates found paid employment in the food service industry, which is outstanding considering the current economic climate. But, the success of the program’s participants really feels inevitable after speaking with the dedicated and caring instructors. “It’s not just knife skills,” says instructor Adam Lariviere. “It’s all the other stuff. Teaching cooking is easy. Teaching the attitude necessary to work in a kitchen is the real challenge, and it’s something we take pride in. We train some pretty good cooks here.”
Chef Ramjattan will be cooking at Second Harvest’s nineteenth annual Toronto Taste fundraiser this Sunday, June 14 at 6 p.m. The event is a grazing affair with food and drinks furnished by some of Toronto’s most famous chefs. Tickets are available online or by phone at 416-408-2594. A portion of the proceeds from the event will go toward supporting this and other Harvest Kitchens across the city.
All photos by Ayngelina Brogan.