Rideau Spotlight: Chef Ric’s
November 28, 2023
The holiday season has arrived in Ottawa’s Original Downtown, and shoppers and store owners alike have plenty to be excited about! There’s a veritable euphoria present in the air as families flock to Rideau Street to conduct their Christmas shopping. Parents will often lose track of time browsing stores like Simons and Hudson’s Bay while children eagerly wait in line to sit on Santa’s lap at the CF Rideau Centre. Meanwhile, restaurants have begun rolling out their seasonal menu items, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier is organizing this year’s iteration of Trees of Hope and the National Arts Centre has a wide array of Christmas programming for audiences to enjoy this time of year. Truly, there is no shortage of Christmas-themed action here in Downtown Rideau!
The reality of the holiday season, however, is that many folks experience this time of year very differently than others. While it’s easy to lose oneself in the winter activities, beautiful decorations and Christmas shopping, there are many people both locally and abroad who lack the resources and/or ability to enjoy the holidays in a manner that many might take for granted. It’s an unfortunate truth that people like Chef Ric Allen-Watson and the staff at his restaurant and The Ottawa Mission are all too familiar with. But with an unwavering passion for culinary excellence and community service, Chef Ric has managed to make a tangible difference in many of Ottawa’s disadvantaged communities and build an institution that stands as one of the most storied and special little businesses on Rideau Street.
Necessity is the Mother of Inspiration
Chef Ric’s interest in food service came about at an early age, but it was not the result of a whimsical childhood aspiration. His introduction to the trade was a baptism by fire stemming from his experiences with food insecurity during his formative years. He divulged his childhood experiences in an interview with the CBC a few years back, touching upon the despondent feeling of opening up a nearly-bare cupboard in a broken home to find only alcohol.
“I remember being so hungry and how that felt — that there was nothing to eat…I know what it’s like to go hungry.”
His living circumstances would only become more complicated after he became homeless, eventually turning to substance use as a means of coping. But after finding a job washing dishes at a women’s residence at Queen’s University in Kingston, he was encouraged by one of the resident cooks to pursue a career as a chef. Over time, he would turn his life around as a graduate of the Professional Cook Training program offered at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.
Since then, Chef Ric has been steadfast in his mission to help others overcome the same burdensome issues that plagued him many years ago. He does this by not only ensuring that disadvantaged people living in Ottawa are served a hot plate of food today, but also offers them the opportunity to build a better tomorrow for themselves through the Food Services Training Program that his restaurant administers.
Teach Them How to Fish, Feed Them for Life
Many of the people who walk through the front doors of Chef Ric’s are in need of not just a decent meal, but a decent chance at a better life. Through the Food Services Training Program (FSTP) that Chef Ric runs out of his restaurant in conjunction with The Ottawa Mission, he is able to offer people a means of establishing a future for themselves and their families by giving them the tools and training necessary to embark on a culinary career. “I don’t care about your past,” he often tells his students. “I care about your future.”
To this end, Chef Ric’s program affords students more than 200 hours of commercial kitchen training over the course of four months as well as ten weeks of Food Theory education training, all of which keeps within the standards set by local colleges. In addition, the Program includes interview training, resume building and communications workshops, courtesy of their partnership with St. Lawrence College. What’s more, the program is funded entirely via donations to The Ottawa Mission, meaning that students who participate do so free of charge.
“We’ve always placed great emphasis on food handling and hygiene to ensure cleanliness and food safety,” Chef Ric explains. “Over the past while, we’ve increased our efforts to use locally grown and sourced foods to ensure environmental sustainability. We also place an increasingly high value on the nutritional content of food given the relationship between diet and health and try to ensure that the meals we teach our students to prepare are healthy.”
All of this acts as a continuation of the values and principles that were upheld by the previous tenants of the building in which Chef Ric’s is currently housed. To keep up with the growth the program has seen since its inception in 2004, the program moved out of the Mission’s shelter and into its current location at 384 Rideau Street, the former home of the Rideau Bakery. The Bakery was a staple of Rideau Street for several decades and the spiritual connection between the two businesses is highlighted on a plaque hung on the wall of Chef Ric’s.
“Chef Ric’s embraces the vision of the former Rideau Bakery,” it reads. “Established by the Kardish Family in 1930, the Bakery provided warmth, inclusion and a feeling of home to all who entered its doors for almost 90 years. Like The Ottawa Mission, the story of the Kardish family is one of resilience and determination. Using recipes from their mother Rivka in the Ukraine, the Kardish family continued her practice of generosity by feeding the community and sharing kindness.”
In effect, the spirit of the Kardish Family and their bakery lives on through the work of Chef Ric and his staff.
Scaling Each Mountain One Step at a Time
It should come as no surprise that feeding a city’s hungry populace is not without its challenges. In recent years, Chef Ric’s has faced a number of obstacles that have made fulfilling their mission an increasingly complicated and multi-faceted endeavour.
As was the case for all businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a swath of problems at first. Not only was preparing food difficult, but so was procuring new recruits for the FSTP – and the pandemic makes no exceptions for any reason. “It was difficult to attract students at the beginning of the pandemic since some students were concerned about being in group settings and the need for social distancing to minimize the risk of infection,” Chef Ric remarks.
With that also came the rising cost of food via inflation, which threatened to make the business’s menu financially inaccessible for much of its clientele. “It has been challenging to keep food prices low,” he states, “however, this was part of our mandate to ensure that people on limited incomes…could access affordable and healthy food.”
Ever determined to uphold that mandate, Chef Ric and his team demonstrated a remarkable degree of ingenuity and resourcefulness when times got tough. “Many students…had difficulty accessing basic supports such as transportation, so we established a fund to help out with things they may need to be able to participate, including support for housing,” he says.
Chef Ric also turned to his partners within the greater Ottawa community to circumvent the issue of inflation. “We’ve been able to keep prices reasonable due to our many partnerships with food companies, restaurants and the Ottawa Food Bank, who supply us with many in-kind donations,” he explains. He also notes that throughout all these challenges, the storefront has raised its prices only once.
Ensuring a Happy Holiday for Everyone
But never is Chef Ric and his team’s devotion to the well-being of the community more apparent than during special holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Leading up to these holidays, Chef Ric’s works to help prepare thousands of special meals served by the Ottawa Mission to thousands in need across Ottawa. The scale of this operation is absolutely immense, and the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into making it possible is awe-inspiring.
“Food preparation for the holiday season for us starts in mid-summer,” Chef Ric explains. “Our annual meal count has risen by over 213% since the year prior to the beginning of the pandemic.”
“For the Thanksgiving meal, we needed 6,000 pounds of turkey, 3000 lbs. of peeled potatoes, 2000 lbs. of glazed fresh carrots, 150 gallons of gravy and 900 vegetarian quiches. Our staff and volunteers work hard for months to prepare as much as we can in advance to ensure that everyone who turns to us for support enjoys a special holiday meal.”
Year after year, driven by increasing demand, Chef Ric and his staff shatter the records they’ve set in years past for the number of meals they serve each holiday. “This Thanksgiving we served an astounding 16,496 meals, more than 5 times the number of special holiday meals served prior to the pandemic.” This is in addition to the more than one million meals the Mission served throughout the entirety of the previous year.
Some may ask how the Mission and Chef Ric’s can possibly prepare and serve so many meals. It’s only through a dedicated team of many staff, volunteers and FSTP students that the job gets done. For Chef Ric and his team, keeping Ottawa’s most vulnerable citizens fed is always worth rising to the challenge. “This is my mission,” he said in his interview with CBC, “and it will be until the day I die.”
His mission is made possible entirely by the generosity of The Ottawa Mission’s many donors, who help to keep the shelter and the restaurant functional year-round. He suggests three potential courses of action for anyone who is interested in helping him and his team fulfill their goals:
- Sign up to volunteer through the Mission and indicate that you want to volunteer in the kitchen at Chef Ric’s,
- Visit the storefront to purchase healthy and affordable food, or
- Donate to the FSTP through the Mission
If you’re looking for a means to give back to the community during the holiday season, consider following any of the three links above to support Chef Ric and The Ottawa Mission in their quest to help our community’s most vulnerable citizens. Feel free to also check out our Events page to see everything else that’s happening this holiday season in Ottawa’s Original Downtown!
🌿 Dietary Accommodations: Vegetarian and vegan options available
⏰ Monday – Friday: 7:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.
⏰ Saturday – Sunday: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.
📞 (613) 518-1415