By Dan Benson
When you think of home cooking – enticing aromas wafting through the house and a table groaning with your favourite foods – does your memory turn to your childhood and your mom’s kitchen? Whether your mom was a gourmet, a competent meat-and-potatoes-and-two veg cook, or the kind who depended entirely on what could be found in the thaw-heat-and-serve aisle, memories of mom’s cooking and her kitchen magic are universally cherished. Sure, we’ll have to make allowances for the dads who could deftly wield a spatula and for the parents who were truly dreadful cooks; but generally, most of us of a certain age grew up on whatever came out of mom’s kitchen and we loved every bite.
Those cherished homestyle meals are the cornerstone of a new social enterprise at St. Paul’s United Church in Cliffside led by accomplished chef, dietitian, and community development worker Ekta Amarani. “Food security is not just about making sure there is food on your table, but that the food nourishes your heart and your soul. It is about food that helps make a house a home,” Ekta notes.
In a city like Toronto, where one can dine out in hundreds of restaurants with menus from around the world, those living on the edges may not be able to afford the meals that help them build a home – often missing ingredients, flavours, dishes, and aromas from their homeland. Ekta’s program, “Mom’s Kitchen,” helps bridge that gap by providing affordable, authentic, home-cooked dinners. The program is about more than just food, says Ekta. “By employing refugee and newcomer women as our chefs, we not only provide them with economic opportunities, we celebrate and share the culinary and cultural gifts of a wide range of communities.” Food is, after all, what Ekta and Mom’s Kitchen are ultimately about, so each month she delves into distinctive menus based on traditional preparation methods and dishes. “So far, we’ve featured foods from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Syria, and I’ve lined up Ethiopian, Filipino, and Brazilian chefs for upcoming months.”
Ekta has also developed a unique funding model that encourages patrons to ‘pay what you feel is right.’ A complete meal is priced at $14, which covers ingredients, prep, chef’s wages, environmentally-friendly packaging, and delivery. Ekta explained further, saying “I encourage people to pay what they feel is right – some can’t afford to pay anything, others pay the full price, and many pay somewhere in between. And many ‘pay it forward’ by donating the price of a meal so someone else can eat who otherwise might not be able to. It’s tight, but it works out surprisingly well!”
St. Paul’s has reinvented itself over the last few years as a community hub and social enterprise incubator. By providing low-or-no-cost space for fledgling businesses that focus on making a difference in society (while operating under sound business principles), the church is expanding its scope of mission. For example, two professionally trained therapists dreamed of starting a small, personalized clinic where they could work with autistic children and their families. ‘The Behaviour Team’ opened up at the church several years ago, and a steady parade of children and their families found a safe place to grow and learn. As minister, I got to know many of them and saw incredible development and growth in the kids. It was a learning opportunity for the congregation members, and myself as well, as we became partners with Anita and Sandy in providing a much needed service to the neighbourhood.
Being a church and running an ‘incubator’ for such small but highly-impactful enterprises is a lot like being a foster parent. You provide a safe, supportive family atmosphere, you shower lots of love and encouragement, you offer advice when needed (even if not necessarily wanted), and you help the fledgling grow stronger and more independent until it’s time to leave the nest. And that, as any parent (foster or not) knows, is always a bittersweet moment. The need for supportive services for autistic children and their families has never been greater, and the Behaviour Team moved out in January because they had outgrown the space at St. Paul’s. It was time. Whenever I pass their new storefront home on Kennedy Road I feel a lot of pride and satisfaction in knowing that we were part of getting them there, like any foster parent, but I also feel a little pang of loss because I still miss them.
Instead of the church being filled with the sounds of kids and parents working through autism, I now hear women laughing, working, and cooking together in languages I don’t understand. The air is filled with the mouth-watering aromas of muranja, albondias, and fattoush (none of which, happily, need any translation). A new foster child is making its home at St. Paul’s. For how long, I don’t know. Mom’s Kitchen started with only 23 meals the first week, and is now up to 150 – that’s a lot of meals to prepare in a church kitchen! I hope they stay a long time, but I know they will only stay as long as they need to. When they make the leap from the nest, we’ll wish them well, tidy up, and prepare to welcome the next fledgling. There’s always room in this nest.