For the last 15 years, Chef Ric Watson has been at the helm of one of the busiest kitchens in the City, the Ottawa Mission Homeless Shelter. He was propelled toward the profession by a childhood determination to learn how to cook well. But, his stellar achievements at the Shelter were attained through a combination of hard work and an unwavering passion for those less fortunate. It was a passion fostered by empathy, having himself overcome a perilous life of drugs, alcohol and homelessness. The Mission kitchen now offers him a platform on which to marshal the support of the community and to champion the benefits of a good, well-prepared meal. I sat down with Chef Ric recently to discuss his humble culinary beginnings, his groundbreaking food training program, the insane cost of celery, and the upcoming February 20th fundraiser, Coldest Night of the Year.
What’s your earliest memory of cooking?
When I was a child, my mother wasn’t a good cook. She would make canned soup in a pot and serve it to my brother and me right out of the pot—not a good thing. So that’s a terrible memory. I think I decided then, because my mother was a horrible cook, that I was going to learn how to cook, to know how to cook.
What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you have visions of being a chef?
I didn’t. I think I wanted to do something with animals. I wanted to be a vet or something like that. Eventually, the chef thing fell into place.
How did you find your way to that?
When I was 14, I got a job in the dish room at Queen’s University, Ban Righ Hall, the women’s residence. All of a sudden I realized what money was about. [Laughs] My life was pretty rough at that time. I worked there for a while and gradually just worked my way up.
Where did you go to culinary school?
Camosun College in Victoria, BC. And, that’s a story in itself. Do you want to know how?
When I was 14 and working at Queen’s University, I found myself pretty much homeless at that time. I lived a pretty rough life. There was a guy that worked there who took me under his wing and saved my life. He guided me. He said, “You know what? You’ve got talent. But you need to get off the drugs and alcohol, and you need to get your life together.” I started as a dishwasher and moved up the ranks really fast. This guy recommended a school in Victoria. I got sponsored and moved to Victoria and went to school there.
That’s really life changing.
I’ll never forget him. He is why this training program happened. He showed me a way. So when students come into the program, that’s what I do. I show them that there’s a different way. You can change your life through food.
You’re coming at it from experience.
Absolutely. That’s why this program [exists]. Part of the reason it’s successful is because it’s from my heart. I know what a lot of these people feel—not all of them, but a lot of them. They have nothing, absolutely zero. This program comes along and everything is free for them. We embrace them, and we give them confidence and a pat on the back. I know what it’s like to feel as if you were absolutely no one.
You are speaking about the Food Services Training Program.
The Training Program started 11 years ago. When I first came to the Mission, I came as a volunteer and never really left. I quickly became the manager, the chef, because I had the skills. Every lunch I would serve on the line. I would see all the clients go through here, and I’d talk to them, and they’d say, “Can you get me a job? Do you need a dishwasher? I know how to cook.” It was a given. All my friends that worked in restaurants were looking for dishwashers or prep cooks, so this [program] was such an easy thing to propose: “With all these people coming through the line, let’s just bring them in and train them.” And, we did. By now the program has evolved. We have a program coordinator, and we have so many contacts throughout the city. It’s just amazing.
It’s two, 5-month periods in the year, correct?
We do two courses a year, five months each. Four days a week is practical [training], one day a week is theory. We partner with St-Laurence College. They help with finding jobs, résumé writing, and so on. Right now we have 13 or 14 students in the program.
Would you say that that’s what you’re most proud of in your career?
That’s the thing that I’m most proud of. I don’t even feel as if I’m coming [here] to work. It’s more like I’m coming home. It’s weird. I deal with each one of these students individually. I learn so much about their lives. I talk to them, just me and them, in my office, and I tell them, “You know what? You can do it. You can change your path.” I’ve had so many people that wanted to say the hell with it, walk away and go back to their old lives. But they didn’t, and now they’re happy they stuck with it.
Lots of success stories?
Oh my god, there are so many people. Sammy is my favourite story. Sammy came here from Ghana. He was a political refugee—hardly spoke any English. When he came to the program, we got him into a course for English as a Second Language and helped him to get his High School Diploma, then through the Training Program, and finally through Algonquin College, where he did the 2-year Culinary Management course. During that whole time, his wife was back in Ghana. His whole family was there, and he was here all by himself. He got a job at hospital food services, where he still works. And, he’s also worked for my catering business for the last 10 years. He was able to get his wife to Canada from Ghana, and now they have two babies, their own house, their own car. She works here full-time… It’s just amazing.
Wow. Good success story for the Program.
When I went to their house at Christmas time to drop off some presents, he just said, “Thank you Chef.” I asked, “For what?” And he said, “For this house.” I asked, “What do you mean, for the house?” And he replied, “You gave me this house.” That’s how he felt, but I said, “No, I didn’t. You worked hard for it.”
That’s pretty gratifying.
Yeah, so that’s why it’s so easy to come to work.
When I first started volunteering at the Mission, I thought we’d be serving prison slop.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, no. I pride myself on not doing that. I won’t serve something that I wouldn’t eat myself.
I mean, I’ve seen prime rib, homemade pizzas, lots of turkeys, croissants for breakfast… How do you get the community to donate this food?
I network everywhere I go. I sit on many boards. We had a board meeting at the Lord Elgin this month. I was just on the phone with the Chef from the Lord Elgin, and now they want to do a fundraiser for the Mission—a wine tasting with a five-course meal, $75 a ticket. Whenever I talk to people, I tell them about this program. And when I talk, it comes from here [Points to his heart], and they can tell. I sit on all these boards because I want them to know about the Mission. So I spread the word, and it opens doors. I sit on a board with the person that runs the main kitchen for “Farm Boy.” He called me the other day to say he had $2,500 worth of salmon at a point it couldn’t be sold: “There’s nothing wrong with it. Would you like it?” “Certainly!” That’s how it happens. That’s how we get a lot of our stuff.
So you’re constantly looking for opportunities to help the Mission.
Yes. Right now, it’s probably the most trying time that I have had in my career of 15 years here because food is so expensive. Food costs are up 10%. It’s crazy. First it was meat, now it’s vegetables. In November, I paid $40 for a case of green onions, last week I paid $89.50. I paid $39.50 for celery in December, yesterday I paid $89.
I saw cauliflower for $8 the other day.
It’s crazy. It’s insane. So, how do we deal? We just have to cut back a bit. I have some prices locked-in for frozen vegetables, so that helps.
What do you do with your time outside of work?
I work [Laughs]. My husband and I like to travel, so we travel a lot.
What city have you traveled to that has the best food?
Morocco was probably the best. When we were there, the food was so good. But, I enjoy food everywhere. Thailand too, I loved the food there.
Other than traveling?
In between travel times, it’s basically just work. We don’t go out or anything like that. We stay home and relax around the house. Today I’ll start work at 6 a.m., then I’ll go home tonight and probably work until 8 p.m. I also run a catering business. And, there’s also a catering service at the Mission. So I run two catering businesses. We cater all over the city, at all different times of day, so it’s challenging.
So why this passion for catering?
I started a catering business 20 years ago because it’s a good money-maker, and it’s a fun thing to do. Here at the Mission, catering [experience] is essential for the students because we can’t let them leave here without knowing how to cater. Every organization asks for catering at some point. If the students know how to cater, it’s easier for them to find jobs.
How does catering work at the Mission?
The catering budget is totally separate. All of the food items for our catering are purchased using a different budget, which is paid off with the money made from catering. Whatever money is left-over from the catering events is put back into the program.
Who uses the Mission’s catering services?
Oh my goodness, this year we catered the Art Gallery (350 people), Parliament Hill Centre Block (550 people). We cater tons of City of Ottawa stuff, many non-profit organizations, lots of private events, weddings—we do all sorts of things.
How has what you do at the Mission changed since you started working here?
The whole environment is different. It’s much more professional. The kitchen has tripled in size. It’s a commercial kitchen now. Before it was just pieces of stuff put together.
When I first started volunteering here, I was very impressed with how well things were run and how organized things were.
It has to be. Just think, we have 15 staff, 14 students in the training program and 25-30 volunteers—all coming through here every day. Everything’s gotta be in order. You have Friday morning people [Of which yours truly is a part, ahem.] who can do everything themselves without assistance. But not every day is like that. I often have to go and say, “OK, you’re gonna serve this, and this is how you do it, put two cups out, etc.” It has to be very much like that.
You guys are very patient because I would lose my mind if someone came into my workplace every three hours and said, “So what can I do? How can I help?”
[Laughs] And, that’s exactly what happens. But, you just get kind of used to it.
The Mission serves about 1,300 meals a day. In my time as a volunteer, I’ve seen some weird donations come in, such as 77 lbs of pomelos and 15 cases of tuna. How do you make a meal out of that?
It’s difficult, and that’s why I have such an awesome team. You can’t just put all that out, you have to serve it in an interesting way and not waste anything. The team’s amazing at doing that. They have to have the ability to combine different things to make it delicious. With donations, you either get a lot of something or you get a tiny, tiny bit. It’s hard to balance.
I think people would be interested to know that the Mission accommodates all types of diets.
It’s imperative. We do vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free. Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to eat what is good for you or to choose what you want. People say, “Well if you’re hungry, you’re hungry.” Yeah, OK, but you still should have the right to not eat meat or pork, or to eat good proteins. It’s just the way life should be. Homeless people aren’t just alcoholics or drug addicts or the mentally ill. Many are people that didn’t make it. They fell through the cracks. Of course, many have addictions and mental illnesses, but there’s also that other percentage. Everybody counts. Everybody!
Tell me more about the Coldest Night of the Year
It’s a walking fundraiser that raises money for the hungry and homeless in 100+ communities across Canada. The walk will be held on Saturday, February 20th, 2016 and participants can either walk 2, 5 or 10 kms. All the money we raise goes towards the Mission. It’s a good fundraiser. It increases the public’s awareness about homelessness and about people outside on cold nights. As for the participants, they get to feel a hint of the challenges faced by those experiencing homelessness—particularly during the winter. Remember how cold it was last year?
Freezing. It was a perfect example of what it could be like if you were homeless. And, it rallies the troops. It gets everyone together to have fun, and it’s just a really good event.
Last question for today. Who’s your favourite volunteer of all time?
You are, of course. [Laughs]
On February 20th, together with thousands of Canadians across the country, I’ll be walking in the Coldest Night of the Year, raising much-needed funds for local charities who support and serve the hungry, homeless, and the hurting. Please click here to give generously.