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Chefs challenged to make healthy meals on a poverty budget

Food security is a big issue for students, and the Poor Chef Competition hosted by Operation Come Home on Feb. 22, brought awareness to how hard it can be to make a healthy meal with only food bank staples and $3.15 per plate to spend on additional ingredients.

The two chefs who won the competition in its first two years are graduates of Algonquin’s culinary management program. Stephen La Salle graduated in 2008 and Harriet Clunie graduated in 2006 and respectively, they won the first and second years of the competition.

Clunie misunderstood the instructions and used the $3.15 for all six plates instead of per plate and still won the competition in 2017. She has raised the bar for all the competitors to make their money and imaginations go even further.

La Salle is the opening chef at Andaz, a restaurant in the Hyatt Hotel on Dalhousie Street, where he has been working since before they opened. He is responsible for all the food and beverage programs at Andaz.

There are big moments and little moments that help define a chef’s journey. La Salle’s big moments include the Sky Lounge in 2017, where guests dined on gourmet food 150 feet in the air while enjoying a stunning view of the nation’s capital. While the big moments are amazing, it’s often the little everyday moments that add up.

“Just any accomplishment from someone on my team is a big win for me,” said La Salle. “That’s anything from a great dessert, to a promotion, to a nice review; seeing my team succeed.”

Clunie has owned the Beechwood Gastropub for a year and her enthusiasm for food is infectious. She laughs easily and her restaurant is a reflection of that laid-back personality. It’s small, comfortable and feels cosy in the dying light of Valentine’s Day before couples begin arriving for their dinner reservations.

“No I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise,” Clunie said when asked about whether she had any ideas for her dish for the competition. “I also don’t entirely know what I’m doing. Part of what I would like to do, which I won’t tell you, because that is also like my trick up my sleeve,” she paused and then, “I can tell you just don’t put it in the article.”

Clunie talks about her food with enthusiasm. With the recorder turned off, she happily talked about her ideas for the Poor Chef competition: cauliflower and textured vegetable protein, a cheap alternative to meat, pasta, eggs and how she was going to combine everything.

It’s obvious how much Clunie loves food and playing with her dishes. In her restaurant she makes as much as she can from scratch: bread, burgers, french fries.

“Take french fries very seriously,” Clunie laughs.

Both Clunie and La Salle pride themselves on using locally sourced ingredients.

“We use local, not just in the kitchen, but in all areas of the hotel,” said La Salle, “from the soaps in the rooms to the spirits in the bar. The kitchen using local produce and meat is obviously the most obvious. (It’s) something that is hotel-wide.”

For personal reasons La Salle did not compete in 2017, so this year he and Clunie are both undefeated. It will shape up to be an interesting competition to see if one retains their title or if neither wins and a new chef reigns supreme. Who wins is not that important, the big winner is Operation Come Home.

Both La Salle and Clunie strive to support their communities and enjoy the philanthropic endeavours they support. Clunie has participated in quite a few fundraisers for the community including; Tastes for Hope, Broadway for Bruyere and Operation Come Home.

“I love doing stuff for (the) community, for charities,” said Clunie. “As a chef, I work so much, so long hours, that the only way I can give back to the community is by participating in events like this.”

La Salle is a big supporter of many of Operation Come Home’s initiatives, so doing the Poor Chef Competition is just another extension of his involvement with the charity.

“I’m happy to bring attention to Operation Come Home with any initiatives. We’re big supporters here. We engage with a few of the Operation Come Home’s social enterprises,” said La Salle. “We donate all of our liquor bottles from both of our bars to their Bottleworks program. Through our involvement in Mealshare, we donate a dollar from certain menu items to their food program Mealshare. Working with Dominion City Brewing we’ve done fundraisers for Farmworks social enterprise and used produce from Farmworks.”

Both chefs feel very strongly about food security issues and how food or the lack of food affects people’s daily lives. By participating in the Poor Chef competition they are hoping that more attention can be brought to that subject so the community and the people who can make the changes needed realize how big of an issue it is.

“(It) helps educate people because right now part of the classist system of food is about knowledge about food and because nobody cooks anymore,” said Clunie. “They don’t know about it, therefore they buy convenience foods which are more expensive, and they don’t have time because they might have to work more than one job, or they work long hours like me and don’t have the energy to do it.”

These chefs are helping to bring awareness to how hard it is to afford food on a tight budget. People on Ontario Works have very little leftover after they pay rent, utilities, clothes and transportation each month. Making that amount go far enough is always a challenge.

“When you speak to people who have done the Operation Come Home food budget challenge, and try to feed yourself on that budget,” said La Salle, “You’ll notice the physical and psychological side effects of what that is and how important it really is for your own health and personal success.”

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