Chef Ric’s is a place of opportunities

Linda Scales

The new Chef Ric’s social enterprise at 384 Rideau Street is a place of opportunities. For passersby, it may seem this new café offers only tasty food and drinks at incredible prices. However, what isn’t immediately evident is the hope and community found here by the Ottawa-area men and women seeking new futures for themselves.

Since its September 7 opening, Chef Ric’s is home to the Ottawa Mission’s Food Services Training Program (FSTP), a transformative job training initiative started in 2004 by Chef Ric Watson, an executive chef and Director of Food Services at The Mission.

By the end of the FSTP the students are ready to be hired into commercial kitchens. The program is intense: every weekday for four hours each day over five months and an industry placement. The FSTP is in partnership with Algonquin College and other culinary organizations, plus is accredited by the Canadian Culinary Federation.

Chef Watson’s desire to help people get into the workforce stems from his experience as a homeless youth with addictions. He was working as a dishwasher at Queen’s University, in Kingston, when a baker would say to him “you can do better, be better,” recalls Chef Watson about the person he now calls his mentor. That baker gave him hope and “believed in me.”

After training as a chef and earning a hotel and restaurant management certification, he started working at The Ottawa Mission, in 2002.

Moving from The Mission’s Daly Street kitchen to the former Rideau Bakery space has enabled the FSTP to stay in Sandy Hill and increase its number of students, decreasing the constant waiting list. There are now three intakes of 25 students per year (instead of two intakes of 12 to 14). Because of the pandemic, the program is currently functioning at 50% capacity.

It also means becoming a social enterprise, a concept envisioned by Chef Watson. This means preparing healthy food while providing students with retail experience and commercial kitchen training and credentials. The food is sold in the café’s storefront and through The Mission’s successful catering program. It will also be the home of the Mobile Mission Meals Food Truck Program that started a year ago. The goal is that Chef Ric’s will be self-sustaining.

Helping to teach are Algonquin College chefs, who volunteer their time, and city-wide volunteers, who help with kitchen duties. To date, about 200 graduates have given the FSTP a 90% success rate. The next cohort graduates on November 4.

Wraparound program

The one requirement for acceptance into the no-cost five-month program is the desire to change one’s life for the better.. “We don’t care about their pasts,” says Chef Watson about the FSTP students. “We care about their futures.” Adult men and women of all ages are accepted, with a recent predominance of women aged 35  to 55.

The FSTP is “a wraparound program,” he says. “We want to make sure our students have everything in life to be successful. I ask them about their dreams and goals. Most of them say they want to work at The Mission, at Chef Ric’s.”

“Most of the staff here are past graduates,” says Chef Watson. “Isn’t that wild!”

Before students graduate, they get to use their new skills in placements organized by the program in restaurants, catering companies and even hospitals and retirement homes. These practicums often lead to employment.

“We’ve three red-sealed chefs who work here. We want our students to be able to work in real restaurants,” he says.

Meanwhile, Chef Watson invites Sandy Hill neighbours to “check out the place and support it.”

“We’ve healthy, fresh food available at affordable prices, and a freezer of frozen foods to take home and cook,” he says.

Now, that’s an opportunity that many harried home cooks could appreciate.

This wall of donor appreciation is on prominent display at Chef Ric’s, an Ottawa Mission program at the former Rideau Bakery space on Rideau Street. It was offered to the Mission by the Aggarwal Family for $10 per year for seven years.