Cooking for a cause: Why these chefs left the high-end kitchen for the Gathering Place

·5 min read
Conor McCann/CBC
Conor McCann/CBC

Ezra Dyer leans over his workstation, a chef's knife in hand; he carefully manoeuvres a slab of rich, red meat, slicing it into manageable stewing chunks and setting them aside.

The moose meat that he's processing was given to the Gathering Place by a regular donor who often provides wild game and vegetable to the outreach centre's kitchen. Today, the meat Dyer is preparing will be fried and put into a soup for the evening rush of hungry clientele.

Only a year ago, Dyer was working at Water West, and before that Mallard Cottage. Compared with the cooking he was doing in the more well-to-do kitchens of St. John's, the nature of his work now is far more appealing, he says.

"If I'm going to be feeding people, I want to feed people who need to be fed — who may not have access otherwise to their own food, or to be fed properly, or to have a safe place to do so," he says. "It just speaks to the soul a bit more, you know?"

Conor McCann/CBC
Conor McCann/CBC

Dyer isn't alone. One of his former restaurant co-workers, Brian Janes, runs the kitchen at the Gathering Place, working alongside a number of other chefs who've turned their backs on high-end kitchens in favour of what they describe as more meaningful work.

"We try to put as much care in everything as we can," says Janes, previously sous-chef at Mallard Cottage for nearly three years.

The Gathering Place describes itself as a community health centre, providing a range of supports and services for vulnerable members of the St. John's community. Among them is a kitchen that provides three meals per-day for those who need them.

When asked why he made the switch from working at one of the province's top restaurants in favour of an outreach centre, Janes explains his rationale succinctly: "I hate cooking for rich people."

Janes says the needs of the Gathering Place's clientele make all the difference, and he finds the cooking he's doing now more rewarding.

"[I'm] cooking for people who need food, as opposed to people who would want to be out and just spend a shitload of money on wine and food — and maybe they don't necessarily need that," Janes says. "Maybe that's excess wealth."

Conor McCann/CBC
Conor McCann/CBC

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic had drastic implications for the community that Janes and his kitchen serve. Through a number of grants, both local and from the Canadian Culinary Federation, Janes's current and former kitchen were able to arrange for extra meals to be provided.

"When the pandemic first started, we were getting supplementary meals from Mallard Cottage," he says. "I went down with a cheque for [owner] Todd [Perrin] and we arranged that they would bring us meals on certain days of the week, and that was really good."

While he had hoped the initiative would last longer, Janes says he enjoys that kind of collaboration between restaurants and outreach, calling it a good experience.

It's definitely refreshing that its people who actually need a hot meal and not just somebody who wants to throw around a few hundred or thousand dollars. - Nick Giles

Despite early help from some local restaurants and a slight slowdown in client usage during the height of the lockdown, chefs at the Gathering Place say that on average they're preparing 400 to 500 meals per day, and have in the past made upwards of six or seven-hundred.

"With more staff being hired on, we've been able to open up for longer, and just do a lot more than what we used to be able to do in the past," says Nick Giles, who joined the team in April.

Though he needed work, Giles specifically chose not to go back to the restaurant industry, and instead joined friends like Derek Ashley who were already working at the Gathering Place.

Conor McCann/CBC
Conor McCann/CBC

"It's a great spot to work," says Giles. "The hours are definitely a lot different than what you see at a normal restaurant, and the pay and benefits are definitely there as opposed to a normal restaurant."

More than the work environment, Giles says cooking for those who needed it most was what drew him to his new position.

"It's definitely refreshing that its people who actually need a hot meal and not just somebody who wants to throw around a few hundred or thousand dollars."

With an emphasis on hearty foods, the kitchen is focused on meeting the needs of their clientele, ensuring that they have the nutrition to make it through to their next meal.

While the team has a budget for ordering food, a great deal of the produce they use is donated, so the daily menu changes based on what's available to the chefs at any given time.

Despite the challenges, Giles says the reward is in being able to use what he's learned in the city's top kitchens to give to a community in need.

"It's definitely refreshing to work here as opposed to a restaurant, because food is a necessity here for most people. It's not just a luxury," says Giles. "To be able to kind of take everything that I've learned, and bring that quality of food to essentially a soup kitchen — it's a really cool thing for me to be able to do."

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