Graduates Melody Madziro and Adam Taylor, serving delicious pulled-pork sliders.
Last spring, we had the privilege of meeting the amazing chef instructors and students of the YMCA’s Basic Culinary Skills Training Program, which we nicknamed “The Original Fifteen” (they’ve been at it since Jamie Oliver was in grade school!). Led by experienced chefs, the program has been successfully teaching Torontonians on social assistance how to become confident, professional cooks for the past twenty-five years. So, when we heard they were moving from the basement of the YMCA on Charles Street to a brand new facility at Metro Hall, we had to be there.
L-R: Colleen Albiston, chair of the board for the YMCA of Greater Toronto; Mayor David Miller; Councillor Janet Davis; and Joe Pennachetti, Toronto city manager, cutting the ceremonial cake.
This past Thursday morning, Mayor David Miller was on hand to cut the ribbon (or more accurately, the cake) at the training facility, which opened along with the new Metro Hall Employment Services Centre and the Y Café. The café is a grab-and-go breakfast/lunch spot that will sell items made by the Basic Culinary Skills students with proceeds going back into the program to cover operating costs, supplies, and rent.
The program’s director, chef Kelvin Ramjattan, said the move has been in the works for well over a year and was prompted by the desire to make the training even more effective. “The new place gives us the ability to teach them more, show them more, and get them better prepared for the industry,” he explained. “What we are looking for is better retention. We’re looking for them to have better skills so they can retain their jobs longer. That’s where the café and catering will help.”
L-R: Chef instructors Dan Prewer, Adam Lariviere, and Kelvin Ramjattan (director), happy to be in the new location.
The café will not only offer cold items like sandwiches and salads, but also hot “à la minute” entrées that students will prepare as orders come in, just like in a restaurant. The students will also fill catering requests for events and business meetings in Metro Hall, as well as prepare meals for YMCA daycares and Second Harvest as they have been for many years.
Coinciding with the move is the addition of ten more spots per year to the enrollment, thanks to the Boston Pizza Foundation. After much brainstorming, Boston Pizza and the Y decided the best way for the foundation to help was to make it possible for young, unemployed people who do not benefit from social assistance to enter the program. “We get a lot of people coming in that can’t afford training,” Ramjattan told us. “They’re not on any system…they have no money, so how do we train them?” Most the of the program’s participants are supported by Ontario Works, so they are able to attend for forty hours per week for eighteen weeks. Others without assistance could not afford the time until now. In addition, Boston Pizza also wants to hire graduating students as cooks, and later groom them for management positions. This fantastic partnership will increase the number of yearly graduates from seventy to eighty, as well as provide Boston Pizza with first crack at the well-trained talent exiting the program.
Mayor David Miller with graduate and small business owner Nicole Minerve.
After all the celebratory speeches, we were fortunate to speak with several graduates who were on hand preparing and serving food to the opening’s guests. Each and every one had an inspiring story to tell.
Nicole Minerve, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, graduated in 2008 and eventually went on to attend the YMCA’s Self Employment Program, a course geared to help people start their own businesses. After completing her studies in December 2009, she immediately opened her own catering company, Apanaki Caribbean Gourmet. “I can definitely say that the YMCA has been really essential in helping me get off the ground,” Minerve said, smiling. “I’m a single mother of three. It was challenging at first doing the program, but I have to say that Kelvin, Dan, and Adam supported me so much. I graduated and I’m very proud of myself.”
Top: Graduate Peter Asaad, making coffee caviar with vanilla cream. Bottom: Peter’s molecular gastronomy creation.
Melody Madziro is ecstatic to be part of an enormous kitchen brigade at the Hilton’s airport location. She told us she always dreamt of working in a five-star hotel, but never thought it was possible until she began the program. “I was thinking, ‘Could I? Could I?'” she told us. “I talked to the instructors and they said I could. So, I had it in my head and kept going toward that goal. I’ll always be grateful for this.”
Adam Taylor and Peter Asaad landed jobs at two of the most high-profile restaurants in Toronto. Asaad, who completed his training two years ago, has been working for the past six months at Mark McEwan’s One Restaurant in Yorkville, and Taylor was hired—even before he graduated—at Grace Restaurant, whose kitchen is led by Dustin Gallagher, a longtime protégé of Susur Lee.
The first crop of students to use the new facility will not begin their studies until March 29, but the Y Café is slated to open this coming Wednesday. If you live or work in the Entertainment District, drop by, have some lunch, and lend your support to one of the most hopeful initiatives to ever happen in our city.
All photos by Stephen Michalowicz/Torontoist.