Chefs for Change

George Brown College chefs offer tips to chef school apprentice, Ross Constandse, on how to give back to the community through cooking

Ross Constandse stands in front of the George Brown College Culinary Arts and Hopsitality building Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Ross Constandse stands in front of the George Brown College Culinary Arts building
Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Coming from a middle-class family, Ross Constandse, 20, is a cook apprentice in the chef school of George Brown College (GBC). “I didn’t have many hardships in my life,” he says.

When he was in grade nine, he set up a fund called “Pink Wheels” to help the breast cancer patients and their families as part of a school assignment. This little Pink Wheels raised a couple of thousand dollars and made Constandse feel good and want to continue his charity work.

“Coming to Toronto every day from my home Oakville, seeing all the homeless people on the street and their suffering, it opened my eyes and I wanted to do something. I thought: ‘do they have something missing?’ ” said Constandse. “For a living we (chefs) make the people happy, we feed the people, so why not help the people who cannot help themselves? Use our skills to actually help someone, help the society—to give back!”

In September, Constandse started up a project called “Chefs for Change.” He wanted to use his culinary skills to help the homeless and the needy. He set up a website and a Facebook page in the name of “Chefs for Change” calling on people to donate or contact him to help provide teaching or preparing healthy meals. At the same time, he also embarked on his own crusading in the streets of Toronto handing out food to the homeless from time to time.

It sounds quite good with this beginning, but when asked what is his plan was, who his sponsors were, when he will have his next event or even how often he goes to feed the needy, this nice gentleman’s answers were unsure.

He just bought the ingredients with his own money and prepared and cooked the food by himself. For three months he didn’t get any donations from his website and didn’t update the Facebook page. It seems he has passion and a kind heart but no experience to know how to do it.

This may frustrate his dedication and diminish the chances of making society better. So help him to help us. GBC has a number of benevolent chefs and professors who have volunteered for charities successfully for a long time. Let’s hear their experiences and Constandse will surely know what to do next.

Amy Symington and Gilda’s Club

Amy Symington  Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Amy Symington and her home-made Christmas dinner at Gilda’s Club
Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Nearly all the chef school or nutrition students know that Amy Symington is the nutrition and kitchen program co-ordinator at Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto (GCGT), a non-profit organization that provides support for cancer survivors and their family members.

Each semester, Symington makes a request for volunteers. Students who have participated in the supper club in the past often tell other students of their positive experience at Gilda’s and how they have enjoyed working with Symington and the Gilda’s Club members.

This supper program has been running for just over two years. As a nutritionist and a chef, Symington designs healthy recipes and even cooks every Tuesday for the cancer recovery members and their families. Cooking for 30 to 50 people per dinner, Symington says she feels “very rewarded and happy to contribute to something meaningful.”

Symington’s mother also suffered from breast cancer, and she says, “I always wanted to do volunteer work in my areas of interest, and so I searched for a charity that is well-established and has similar beliefs. Then I found Gilda’s.”

She has volunteered for Gilda’s since graduating from GBC. When she came back from England after completing her master’s degree in applied human nutrition, she made use of her education and experience and decided to help out with Gilda’s, which was a newly developed supper program. Two years later it continues to run and helps benefit many people whose lives have been touched by cancer.

Tips for Constandse:
1. “Network as much as possible and connect with everyone no matter their role or profession.”
2. “Volunteer as frequently as you can in the areas that you are most interested in.”

Nathan Hogan and the Montgomery Inn’s Youth Project

Nick Hogan and the Montgomery Inn's Youth Project Photo: Dora Liu/The Dialog

Nathan Hogan and the Montgomery Inn’s Youth Project
Photo courtesy of Nathan Hogan

Chef Hogan started volunteering when he was in high school as a basketball coach. When he became a chef, he didn’t mind giving up his time to cook for the needy or teach someone who needed to know how to cook.

For Chef Hogan, learning to cook is not only a necessary life skill, it’s training for a person on learning how to become a good team player.

“My (basketball) coach taught me be discipline, taught me don’t be selfish, to sacrifice, taught me to work hard … those are life skills, not just for basketball. And I thought those are the same things as cooking in a kitchen,” said Chef Hogan.

Last year, he held three cooking classes for Montgomery’s Inn Youth Project. Montgomery’s Inn is a community museum in Etobicoke which also acts a place for different community programs.

“There were about 15 kids in a class. They may come from financial unstable backgrounds, they may have learning issues,” said Chef Hogan. “We taught them basic stuff on how to cook fresh pasta, how to make Caesar salad.”

Chef Hogan said he let them pair in teams and worked together. He found that some of the kids changed from shy to more confident and outgoing saying, “one of the kids told me, ‘Yeah, I did the green curry for my family and they liked it.’ That also motivates me to continue these kinds of jobs.”

Tips for Constandse:
1. “Sponsorship is a big deal!”
2. “Get some funding. Do some research on government funding and volunteer at shelters to get all the outlets from there.”

John Higgins and SKETCH Toronto

SKETCH Photo: Sonya Reynolds from SKETCH

Chef John Higgins and his SKETCH team
Photo: Sonya Reynolds from SKETCH

Chef Higgins has worked in the culinary industry for over 30 years and has been volunteering for as long. “It’s so natural for a chef to give foods to others,” said Higgins.

As the director of George Brown’s chef school, cooking for charity and teaching the underprivileged for free is part of his job.

“I do an average of 15 events a year,” said Higgins. His charity work is mostly big funding events, such as an 800-person charity dinner for Star Elite Foundation.

However, for his own balance, Chef Higgins says he loves more low key, fun and creative volunteer work for humble and quiet charities.

At the end of October, Chef Higgins participated in a small youth art group from SKETCH Toronto’s culinary arts program. “It was not fundraising, it was not cooking. We just sat there talking about food. But wow! Their energy…they are so powerful,” said Higgins.

He says SKETCH Toronto is a centre using art to help young people find a focus in life, and that “you can do carpentry, you can do floral decoration, you can do music, and they also have a food program as well.”

“(Every time) they will cook for an evening. Maybe I bring them a chef if they missed one, but mostly I just give advice in different ways. I love the people who run this program. They are very creative. And I realized that they are not a bureaucracy; they don’t have a lot of blah blah blah. They just…do some things,” said Higgins, who was not there to cook.

He was excited for how food will bring the youth together to work out something, which made him very interested and more willing to spend his time on it.

Tips for Constandse:
1. “Charity is not just giving your time, it is like a company, it’s about planning, preparation, hygiene, transparency, who are your targets and what they really need.”
2. “Work with the charities or join current volunteer callings.”

John Seung Jae Lee and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Chef John Lee Image courtesy of Chef John Lee

Chef John Lee
Image courtesy of John Lee

Chef Lee has worked for charity for 10 years. His volunteer resume is lengthy: Gilda’s Club, United Way (Kids Cook to Care), Slow Food, Second Harvest, West End Parents Co-op, Second Base Youth Shelter and a lot of one-off events over the years.

What makes Chef Lee most proud is a cooking class he created at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for both recovering addiction clients and the inpatient youth department. His idea was to help children find a way to feed themselves when their parents were unable to do so.

After the success of that program, he was then asked to take on the very challenging job of teaching youth groups who were suffering with serious mental health and personality issues, who had been admitted under 24-hour supervision.

“I am still running this program and just started my third group. Only a few of the people from my original group have successfully applied and have become culinary students at GBC through the ACET (assistant cook extended training) program,” said Chef Lee. “When I see them thriving and enjoying food, I am always reminded of the importance of what food can do to affect the emotions of those who are empowered by it. The challenge of dealing with young adults struggling with mental health issues has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Tips for Constandse:
1. “Just reach out and make an effort. No charity would be adverse to having a skilled professional on hand.”
2. “If you want to do the charity for your own satisfaction, it is not charity.”

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Chefs for Change