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“There was a need to be filled”: A Q&A with chef Danielle Bassett, who is bootstrapping a community kitchen to feed hundreds of Torontonians

"There was a need to be filled": A Q&A with chef Danielle Bassett, who is bootstrapping a community kitchen to feed hundreds of Torontonians

Restaurants weren’t the only food sources in the city to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent measures to slow the spread of Covid-19. Many of Toronto’s shelters, food banks and soup kitchens are grappling with strict new social distancing measures and sanitation regimes, and a sudden spike in demand. Danielle Bassett, a Toronto chef who spent part of her youth living on the streets, is using donations from shuttered restaurants to help pick up some of the slack for the social programs she once relied on. Working in the commissary kitchen at the Depanneur, a spot with a history of civic-minded culinary actions, she’s created a program called #FamilyMealTO. Here’s how it works.

The family meal is a sacred pre-service tradition in restaurant kitchens: it gives cooks a chance to get creative and make something delicious with what they have on hand. How does that relate to what you’re doing here?

In our industry, you go through your fridges and dry goods and put together whatever you have, and that’s your family meal. It’s a low-cost way to make sure your staff feel appreciated—that while they’re working to serve everyone else, they have a chance to eat a warm, nutritious meal themselves. Now that we’re all in this together, we’re extending it outside our industry to the rest of the city.

Who is the program for?

I’m compiling a list of shelters and soup kitchens and food banks that have been ordered to close due to the coronavirus, and I’m working with a couple of people in the social work industry to compile and get exact numbers of people we need to be providing meals for. We were hoping to serve 80 or 90 people per night, but we’ve partnered with St. Francis Table—the only food security program still operating in Parkdale right now—and we’re actually serving about 200 meals per night.

So what are you cooking, and where are you getting your ingredients?

We’re mainly looking at serving nutritious, hearty soups, like a vegan coconut and ginger sweet potato soup. People seem to like that flavour profile. Beyond that, because we have so many bags of spinach and kale, I was going to do a cream of spinach soup, which will also help us use up donations of dairy. The next large batch of soup will probably be a chicken stew, or a minestrone-based soup where you have a nice rich broth and some good vegetables in there. Donations are coming from local restaurants, and we’re also collecting monetary donations on our website. We want whatever anyone can contribute, whether it’s something as simple as a bag of flour, canned goods or dairy. We got a generous donation from Brothers Butcher Shoppe, and an enormous amount of greens from Mildred’s Temple Kitchen, for instance. 

How did your personal history as a homeless youth inspire you to give back to the shelter system?

I’m originally from Montreal, and when we relocated to Toronto in the ’90s, I found myself on the streets as a runaway, in and out of shelters. By the time I was 18, I got off the streets, but I’ll never forget how much social programs helped me survive. I used to rely on drop-in kitchens where you could get some warm soup or a nice sandwich. When Covid-19 hit, our community of chefs and food and beverage servers was completely unprepared. Every single person I’ve ever worked with or encountered in the food industry in Toronto proper has no job right now, and no definite answer on when their job will return. So I felt that between shelters and food banks and soup kitchens being shuttered due to health concerns, and having tons of unemployed people who have dedicated their lives to food, there was a need to be filled.

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Opening a new restaurant or food business is difficult even in the best of times, but what’s it like to launch something like this during a global health crisis?

The logistics are definitely complicated. For one thing, this project is entirely volunteer run, and we need to keep our volunteers safe, happy and comfortable with leaving their homes. That means working with people about how many hours they can commit, and making sure they can always cancel if they feel sick or otherwise not up to it. So we’re taking care of that while making sure that certain objectives and time frames are met. I’ll be trying to make sure we have a rotating body of volunteers, so no one person gets overworked and people have time to rest and deal with family issues.

You were among the thousands of food industry folks who lost their job in recent weeks. How does it feel to get back into a kitchen?

To be able to get up and come to a kitchen, turn on an overhead, open a fridge and see, okay, this is my stock, I’m gonna do some prep, make some soup... anything we can do right now that involves a regular schedule is really good for mental health and well-being. Everyone’s been so generous and supportive of each other, and this has been quite uplifting and inspiring. This is about making sure we’re not helpless until stimulus packages reach us.

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