The late, great Anthony Bourdain once said “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.”
Part of what I love about food is how it has the ability to bring people together, how it has the ability to quietly dissolve barriers between people who don’t see eye-to-eye. I challenge you to sit down at the table of someone you don’t think you have a lot in common with, and see how much in common you have once you’re done the meal. Eating with someone is a way to explore them–their culture, their dreams, their background.
Sometimes my love of food takes me to interesting places, and a couple weeks ago, that place was Save On Meats in Vancouver’s DTES.
Full disclosure: I live not far from here; though far enough west to be in a different postal code. The 4-block radius around Main and Hastings is considered to be the city’s poorest and most challenging neighbourhood. Here you’ll find addiction, homelessness, physical and mental illness, and hunger.
So when I got an invite from my colleague, Sherri, to go and cook a meal for these folks, I had some anxiety about it. I wasn’t even 100% certain what I was signing up for, but I had a free Monday night, and it sounded like an interesting adventure, and a way to use my cooking skills for good and not evil (my friends are complaining I’m trying to make them fat).
So I showed up at Save On Meats at 5 pm on a Monday night (and was grateful I knew a few of the other volunteers) and met Ash MacLeod, one of the co-owners (the other is Mark Brand). He explained that Save-On is a social enterprise, part profit-driven restaurant, part charity. Through their Better Life Foundation, they serve about 1,000 meals per day to residents of the DTES, primarily to those living in local SROs.
He talked about the importance of community, and how isolating it is to deal with issues of addiction and poverty. We were there as part of the Plenty of Plates initiative, which invites local residents into the restaurant and then serves them a 3-course meal for free. While there certainly are lots of soup kitchens and charities that hand out food to local residents, some have an agenda (often a religious one), and few, if any, offer them a social experience in which to enjoy the food. Going to a restaurant to eat is something many of these people almost never get an opportunity to do.
Sherri Sadler fundraised $3000 so that we could do this that night. Save-On has developed recipes that manage to get the menu down to $3.50 per person, and the entire thing is staffed and run by volunteers. Save-On donates the space, and all the drinks.
There were about 20 of us, and we quickly divided ourselves into front- and back-of-the-house staff. We started at 5 pm with nothing, and were ready for service by 7:30 pm.
The menu consisted of salmon croquettes (I believe the salmon was donated) with a dill aioli, a chicken alfredo pasta, and a scratch-made chocolate cake with a berry sauce and whipped cream.
In all honesty, I spent a lot of the evening hiding out in the kitchen, but I really enjoyed creating with and getting to know the other volunteers. If I did this again, I think I’d try to do more serving and get a chance to know the guests a little more.
I think there is often a perception of “us” against “them.” But the reality is, we could easily be them. We live in an extremely expensive city. Lose your job, without the right supports in place, you or I could end up in a similar situation. Compassion is the key. They’re people. We’re people. And food is the bridge.
For more information, please visit: abetterlifefoundation.