Meet the Chef Bringing 100 Meals A Day to At-Risk Communities
By: Kelsey Adams
Editor’s note: Chefs, restaurants and community food groups make up a big part of the Ontario Culture Days network. In light of COVID-19, we’ve seen food services rapidly adapt their approach. We asked writer Kelsey Adams to profile one such initiative: Family Meal TO. We’re tracking similar projects across the province. Want to share one from your region? Drop us a line here.
It was business as usual for Toronto’s food service industry when the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard and abruptly in mid-March.
Len Senater, who owns food venue The Depanneur in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood, wondered what would happen to all the food. “I thought, ‘There will be wholesalers and producers with products they can’t move. There will be restaurants with products they can’t sell. And there are all kinds of people who are going to need food.’ My original suggestion was that restaurants start turning their unsellable inventory into meals for their staff, or a ‘family meal’ as it’s colloquially referred to in the industry,” said Senater.
The Depanneur is not a restaurant but rather a space where chefs, food professionals and the public can come together and explore food through supper clubs, cooking classes, private events and drop-in dinners hosted by professional and amateur cooks. The venue has a history of fostering community.
In 2016, when Syrian refugee families arrived in Toronto, Senater opened the kitchen to provide them with somewhere to cook while they were waiting for permanent housing. Having a space specialized for inviting strangers to come and cook together, it seemed fitting. The project, Newcomer Kitchen, ran for three years.
Now, the main floor kitchen space is only being used three days a week by one chef at a time to create pick-up meals like Tibetan momos, Tuscan soups and Filipino brunch. Senater had a promising 2020 ahead, with sold out events for months that he had to issue refunds for as soon as the virus limited our ability to congregate in large groups. Acting proactively, he gave clients the option to have their refund converted into a donation for a new outreach initiative being run out of The Depanneur’s basement commissary kitchen.
That initiative, Family Meal TO is the brainchild of chef Danielle Bassett, who reached out to Senater saying she wanted to collaborate to feed the community. Senater offered the kitchen at no cost and gave Bassett free reign to bring her vision to life.
What she’s created over the past month is an enormous feat, feeding 100 to 200 people a day through a partnership with St. Francis Table in Parkdale. Bassett and her rotating list of fellow volunteer chefs, line cooks and bartenders meet the needs of different social service organizations by prepping food items, preparing family meals in bulk, donating food supplies or helping package meals.
“We’re trying to use all of our resources from being in the food service industry and transferring them over towards the shelter systems, meal programs and people that are doing street outreach out of vans,” said Bassett. Having experienced homelessness as a teenager, she is cognizant of the realities that many food insecure people in Toronto face, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The city’s Out of the Cold programs are still trying to operate. But, either they don’t have kitchens in their organization space or they don’t really have access to packaging or food supplies.”
They’ve been making shepherd’s pie, soups, salads, mac and cheese with roasted broccoli and oyster mushrooms as well as sandwiches and other nutritious to-go meals for facilities that don’t have ovens to reheat food.
Bassett and her team want to provide the best culinary experience as possible but are reliant on food supply donations, cash donations and money raised on their GoFundMe page. They’re grateful to still have the opportunity to be in the kitchen, to collectively develop new recipes, while helping those in need. “We’re all here because we love it, nobody is getting paid. There’s absolutely zero wages available. And still, I have a regular group of guys that show up every day, excited to be here.”
Giving back in this way has been a trend throughout her career. When she was head chef at The Emmet Ray, a local bar, she organized fundraisers for the Fort York Food Bank and West Neighbourhood House.
“As someone who navigated social services, not knowing when my next meal was coming, knowing what it’s like to have to use a food bank and having to go to a soup kitchen—and it’s not shameful but it’s not the most empowering feeling when you’re navigating that system—that life experience has shaped and molded me to be perhaps a little more compassionate towards my fellow human.”
As the economy remains at a standstill and people are required to remain home, restaurant workers will continue to feel the burden of lost labour. Family Meal TO is one way they are finding a sense of purpose in this precarious time.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto whose work explores the intersection of food, art, film and music with a focus on the contributions of marginalized cultural producers. She has written for The Globe and Mail, CBC Arts, The FADER, i-D, Canadian Art and NOW Magazine.
Images provided by Sandy Nicholson ©2020