Founded 110 years ago, the Ottawa Mission has evolved into a place that offers a wide range of programs and services to address the myriad needs of people experiencing homelessness. For the past 15 years, Chef Ric Watson, the Mission’s Food Services Manager, has applied his culinary talents in multiple ways; preparing meals and serving up both education and hope. He shared some insight into the work of the Mission, particularly during the holiday season, with Ottawa At Home.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE FOOD SERVICES INDUSTRY? I started out at 14, working as a dishwasher at Queen’s University. It was a very difficult time; I was living on the street and abusing drugs and alcohol. That job was a life-changing experience as I found a mentor who saw that I had potential, helped me gain self-confidence and encouraged me to go to culinary school.
HOW HAVE YOUR EXPERIENCES INFLUENCED YOUR WORK AT THE MISSION? I’d enjoyed so many wonderful professional opportunities, but I always felt like something was missing. I took this job 15 years ago because I knew it would enable me to give back in many different ways. It’s so rewarding that it doesn’t even feel like work.
DOES YOUR ROLE INVOLVE MORE THAN JUST COOKING AND SERVING FOOD? At the Ottawa Mission, we house, feed and educate people. We try to make it as friendly and welcoming an environment as possible. It’s a large operation – we serve 1300 meals per day; that adds up to almost half a million meals each year. For the past 11 years, I’ve also run our Food Services Training Program, offering top-quality culinary education. The last four sessions have had 100 percent success rates, with everyone finding a job prior to graduation.
WHAT IS ONE OF THE MOST HEARTWARMING ASPECTS OF YOUR JOB? It’s seeing people change their lives. I think often of a client named Sammy who came to me ten years ago, with little English, few skills, no job and a wife back home in Ghana. He participated in our Food Services Training Program; improved his language skills and attained his high school diploma. Then, I helped him enroll in Algonquin’s Culinary Management program. Now, his wife is a Canadian citizen and they are the proud parents of two boys; they own their own home and vehicle. It’s been an incredible turnaround for him and shows that at the Mission, dramatic change is possible if you apply yourself.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE MISSION DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON? We try to make things festive and joyful, although it’s a bittersweet time of year for many. We have lots of volunteers that come in to help make gingerbread houses and Christmas cards. The unfortunate aspect of this is that the rush of support ends when the holiday season does.
THE MISSION IS WELL KNOWN FOR ITS BIG HOLIDAY TURKEY DINNER – WHAT DOES THAT INVOLVE? The dinner will be on December 18 this year, and we anticipate serving 2500 to 3000 meals. The menu always includes turkey with all the trimmings, tourtière, homemade cranberry sauce, fresh baked rolls and donated cupcakes. I like to make the dining room look like grandma’s house; we put out tablecloths and centrepieces and invite community leaders to help serve; we also have carolers singing during dinner.
ARE THERE OTHER HOLIDAY MEALS THAT HAPPEN AT THE MISSION? On Christmas Day we always have a special breakfast and another traditional turkey dinner. On Boxing Day we prepare another holiday favourite – hot turkey sandwiches. It’s a lot of work to try to make the Christmas season more positive, but it’s so worthwhile and gratifying.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO SERVE UP SOME HOLIDAY CHEER ON A LIMITED BUDGET? Sometimes it can be difficult – we rely on the community and we are fortunate that during the holidays more donations do come in. We deal with large food distributors and they offer us discounts and donations too. This year, our local farmers have been so fantastic – they have been so generous dropping off huge quantities of fresh produce.
HOW CAN THE PUBLIC HELP SUPPORT THE MISSION’S EFFORTS AT CHRISTMAS? We post a “most-needed items” list on our website (ottawamission.com), and we welcome monetary contributions as well as donations of frozen turkeys, winter coats, boots, warm socks and gloves, razors and, of course, perishable and non-perishable food. We also enjoy welcoming groups who want to come in and help us wrap Christmas gifts or fill stockings for our residents.