In a collective kitchen, there are never too many chefs.
In the east end, a collective cooking effort with star chef Daniel Vézina
Star chef Daniel Vézina gets around: He is known for his Laurie Raphaël restaurants in Quebec City and in Montreal and for his cooking classes. He is known also for his cooking shows on television and for his books: The most recent, L’Atelier de Daniel Vézina, provides 100 basic culinary techniques and recipes — entirely in images.
One afternoon this month, Vézina was at the Cuisine Collective Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in Montreal’s east end; ever the teacher and the mentor, he was chopping vegetables, affably demonstrating knife skills, the proper way to dice an onion and other techniques and generally bonding with the others around the work table as, together, they prepped ingredients for a chunky vegetable soup and for a chicken dish featuring tomatoes and bell peppers.
Vézina was there to lend his name to a new initiative by Longueuil-based Ultima Foods to help support the mission of collective kitchens in Quebec: Participants gather each month in groups of six to eight to learn the basics of shopping for food and cooking. They spend the day working together in a collegial atmosphere, preparing enough appetizing, nutritious and affordable dishes for themselves and their families, if they have families, for the month. They save countless hours in the kitchen at home — and a considerable amount of money.
At the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve organization, Quebec’s oldest collective kitchen and one of the largest, more than 200 people prepare more than 38,500 maincourse portions of food every year.
During a cooking day, usually about six hours long, a group can prepare hundreds of portions. Average cost per portion: 85 cents.
“What a great idea,” Vézina told The Gazette. “I believe in everything that can increase people’s daily quality of life. I said yes right away. I think it is an extraordinary initiative.”
Used to be, families had eight or 10 members and everyone cooked together, he said. But times have changed. More of us live on our own. And to cook alone, he said, is depressing. “Cooking together makes the activity dynamic, makes it something social. To me, it is also a form of social engagement, a way of getting involved in your milieu.”
“Food is a wonderful source of pleasure and a way to connect with others socially.”
RCCQ CO-ORDINATOR MARIE LECLERC
Another reason he agreed to get involved was to help raise awareness among Quebecers of the existence of collective kitchens: although the first was launched more than 30 years ago and today there are nearly 1,400 across the province with close to 7,000 members cooking for an estimated 37,000 people each year, Vézina had never heard of them. He figured there were others who hadn’t, either. “And they deserve to be better known,” he said.
Dominique Brulé, chef and group leader at the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen, sees her mission as helping people.
“I like what I do a lot,” she said.
Members of the organization, which is housed in a former Caisse populaire on Adam St. and has its walk-in fridge in the space formerly used as a walk-in safe, set aside the better part of one day each month to cook together with those in their group; a couple of days beforehand, they come in to study the circulars with Brulé for the specials, to decide on the dishes they want to prepare — usually five — based on what is on special and to determine the total number of portions they’ll be cooking.
There are some who can’t cook when they first join, Brulé said, or even read a recipe. Some have difficulty with reading, period.
“We show them what to do,” she said.
Members bring their own containers and pitch in to prepare all the dishes together: each member has the right to up to 12 portions of each dish, for a total of 60 dishes. If a group with eight members opts to prepare the maximum number of portions allocated to them, then they’d prepare and cook 480 portions in a day.
The groups have names, like Les abeilles and Les végés: the members of Les végés prepare vegetarian meals using organic ingredients: average cost per portion is 86 cents. Some vegetarians belong to groups including non-vegetarians, but the choices always include at least a couple of vegetarian meals, explained Nicole Forget-Bashonga, director of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen. The meat eaters are fine with the idea of eating less meat, she said.
Once the members of a group decide what they’re cooking, Brulé gives them their shopping assignments: One person might buy the meat, for instance, another the vegetables. They return with their purchases, the bills are totalled and the final figure divided by the number of portions. The cost of their portions is deducted from the cost of their purchases; whoever is out of pocket gets money back.
One could be forgiven for wondering whether cooking one Saturday a month at the Hochelga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen isn’t kind of a busman’s holiday for MarcAndré Jolivet, who works as a pastry chef.
But he really likes it. “I like the social part,” said the father of two children, 7 and 5. “I have met people I wouldn’t have otherwise ... And it’s a huge time saver.”
He takes home the maximum allowable amount of food; put another way, the 60 portions of food he takes home and puts into the freezer provide the bulk of dinner for the four of them, five nights a week, for three weeks. As the one who does the cooking for the family (his work day starts and ends earlier than his wife’s does), his time in the collective kitchen saves him 10 to 15 hours a month in his home kitchen.
“That way, I have time to do homework with the kids and play with them, and there is a better quality of life,” said Jolivet, who has been a member of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen for about a year and a half. “It means less rushing — and we always eat well.
Commercially prepared foods are often loaded with salt, he said. “Here, you really know what you are eating.”
Among dishes Jolivet has cooked recently with his group are quiche, spaghetti sauce, miniature meat loaves and chicken enchiladas. They have also prepared vegetarian dishes featuring legumes. Portions often cost between 60 and 75 cents, although a chicken cordon bleu dish, featuring ham and cheese, came in at $1.20 per portion.
“There is great equipment at the collective kitchen — and we can cook two to three different things at the same time,” he said.
A bonus: Jolivet’s monthly stints at the collective kitchen have piqued the interest of the children. “They say, ‘What will you make this time, Papa?’ ” And it has also made them willing to try new things, he said: Last time he cooked with his group, three of the five dishes they prepared were based on recipes they were trying for the first time.
The Ultima Foods initiative, known in English as “Iögo, supporting goodness,” is named for the yogurt line the company introduced last summer. In Quebec, the effort features five components: financial contributions to the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen and to the Cuisines collectives de la Mon- térégie in Granby; donations of Iögo products to the two organizations; commercial spots about collective kitchens in which such high-profile Quebecers as Vézina and actors Guylaine Tremblay and Brigitte Lafleur appear; the spots will air until early May on Radio-Canada and RDI; an Iögo cookbook available for $19.99, in English and in French, through RenaudBray bookstores and its website (www.renaud-bray.com), with profits to collective kitchens; a program in which Ultima Foods employees will be encouraged to take one paid day off work each year to work in collective kitchens in their communities.
The two Quebec sites were chosen for the proximity to Ultima Foods facilities. Sup- port with starting of community kitchens in Halifax and Calgary, where the company also has facilities, is planned, as well as a contribution to a community food centre in Toronto. Outside Quebec, celebrity chef Lynn Crawford is the main spokesperson for the company’s campaign.
Vézina’s Quebec City restaurant features a workshop in which he gives cooking classes and he has hosted or appeared on a number of cooking shows; in the popular Radio-Canada series Les Chefs!, which starts its fourth season in June, he is a mentor to aspiring young chefs as well as co-host. It is clear that he is passionate about food and cooking.
“Through the cooking classes and my restaurants, what I want to do is pass along my knowledge,” he said. He was gratified by the enthusiasm about food and cooking expressed by the collective kitchen members he met in Granby and i n Montreal. “Some seemed even more interested than my students,” he said.
The first collective kitchen opened in May 1982 in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve when Jacynthe Ouellette, a single mother on welfare, suggested to her sister Sylvie, also a single parent, that they “combine their money, ideas and time,” as the Regroupment des cuisine collectives du Québec explains on its website. “The two decided to buy their groceries and cook nutritious meals together. Occasionally, a neighbour would join in. They would get together once a month and cook up 20 or so meals for each of their families.”
Before long, Ouellette was feeding her two children well and women from the neigh- bourhood had started to invite her to share her knowhow — and the movement grew from there.
One of the ways in which collective kitchens have evolved is in the makeup of its members, said RCCQ coordinator Marie Leclerc. At first, most were women cooking for their families. But today, the membership is more diversified — and, by extension, collective kitchens are meeting more varied needs.
The Hochelaga-Maisonneuve collective kitchen, for instance, has children as young as 5 come in for several sessions; they learn to make lunch. Families who live in subsidized housing in the neighbourhood learn together about eating nutritiously and economically. Fourteento 17-year-olds attend to learn to read circulars, shop for groceries, learn basic techniques and make simple dishes. “They learn to find their way around the kitchen,” as Forget-Bashonga put it.
A group of five women, the oldest of whom is 80, cook together once a month. They’re there by 8 a.m., they prepare three or four different dishes and knock off at noon. They choose to cook less than other groups, but pace themselves so they don’t get too tired.
Some participants are widowers, learning to cook for themselves after a lifetime: others come because they are simply not motivated to cook for themselves. And some come as an antidote to the social isolation they feel — perhaps because they are newly divorced or have recently lost a job.
There are recent immigrants, looking to find community and share recipes. And there are those who are vulnerable: they have intellectual disabilities or limited mobility, for instance.
“Food is a wonderful source of pleasure and a way to connect with others socially,” Leclerc said.
Some people join collective kitchens because they want to prepare food to correspond to specific needs — mothers who want to prepare baby food, for instance, or people with specific health problems, such as AIDS, diabetes or hypertension.
“These are groups of people who get together to learn to eat better,” Leclerc said. “A collective kitchen is a tool of popular education, one that emphasizes autonomy for people, a place in which citizens get involved to find solutions … It’s a question of taking charge.”
Think of it as a learning community or a learning circle, she said. “It is a milieu in which people share knowledge.”
And what they achieve goes beyond meal preparation.
“The purpose was — and is — for collective kitchens to be a place for social contact, building support, and gaining more self-confidence and self-sufficiency,” as the RCCQ website states. “This original vision is still as strong as ever and remains the guiding principle for all our collective kitchens.”