My first impression, as I enter the FoodWorks kitchen, was the delicious aroma of fresh herbs and warm spices simmering on the stove. Meal prep for the day’s customers was well underway, and the kitchen was alive with activity. The one key difference about this particular kitchen? The cooks are all at-risk youth from Ottawa.
FoodWorks is one of several social enterprises run by Operation Come Home (OCH), an “an employment, education, and support centre for homeless and at-risk youth age 16 and up.” The initiative includes both meal deliveries, and more recently, a catering service.
FoodWorks was inspired by the participants’ enjoyment of existing food prep activities and programs at OCH, and a desire to harness this interest into an opportunity for skills development and sustainable employment. Fast forward three years, and FoodWorks has grown and expanded, with numerous success stories under its belt. Many of the program’s alumni have found formal employment, including work at professional restaurants around town.
These days, world-class Chef Bruce Wood is at the helm. On the day of my visit, he was leading the youth (and a few volunteers) in preparing vegetarian chili with smoked tofu, summer vegetable slaw, corn bread, and, for dessert, brownies with cherry compote.
“I always think about what’s in season, for sure… and rotate between cultures and types [of dishes] for variety,” says Chef Wood on his cooking philosophy, and coming up with meals that are fresh and exciting for customers.
Clearly, this approach has resonated with the community—a whopping 100% of customers surveyed said they would recommend FoodWorks to friends and family.
Although dishes are rarely repeated—as Chef Wood strives for innovative menus each week—FoodWorks has a few customer and staff favourites on rotation. These include tofu corn fritters, classic lasagna, gnocchi, and tourtière—a guaranteed winner during the holidays! Meals are offered, with a view to accommodate diverse dietary needs or preferences on Mondays (meat), Wednesdays (vegetarian) and Fridays (vegan).
“Historically, there’s a bit of a party culture in the industry… However, [there is now] a changing culture.”
In response to popular demand, the social enterprise has also started catering for local organizations and offers a range of dishes from gourmet charcuterie and hors d’oeuvres to corporate lunch fare. The catering experience has been so successful, FoodWorks now hopes to focus on catering as they expand this social enterprise.
FoodWorks is also an advocate for healthy and safe—both mentally and physically—professional kitchens. “Historically, there’s a bit of a party culture in the [restaurant] industry… However, [there is now] a changing culture,” says Mandi Lunan, public relations guru for FoodWorks.
Given this, FoodWorks is dedicated to not only ensuring their youth are ready for the “real world,” but also setting them up for success after the program concludes, by connecting youth with kitchens and workplaces around town that have a positive, supportive environment.
At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing the community together through delicious, nutritious meals, and giving at-risk youth the opportunity to build their skills in a professional setting. As Katie Sanders, the OCH support worker for FoodWorks aptly put it: “we just want people to join the FoodWorks family!”
For more information, including how to sign up for weekly meal deliveries or reserve catering services for your next event, visit foodworksottawa.ca. You can also check out their weekly menus on Instagram.