Non-profit social enterprise taps into culinary knowledge of new Canadians

Food and the City writer Julie Van Rosendaal drops by EthniCity Catering Training Program, a non-profit social enterprise run by the Calgary Centre for Newcomers, and samples some of the global cuisine trainees cook there.

EthniCity Catering brings global cuisine to Calgary events

EthniCity chef and kitchen manager Ajoy Sehgal. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Sharing a meal remains one of the best ways to get to know someone, and to learn more about different cultures and backgrounds.

EthniCity catering, a non-profit social enterprise run by Calgary's Centre for Newcomers, taps into the culinary knowledge of new Canadians, turning their cooking skills into a business, while helping prepare them to work in the food and hospitality industry.

"It's training for us also," says chef and kitchen manager Ajoy Sehgal, who worked in kitchens around the world, including Bangkok, Hong Kong, Dubai and throughout the Middle East, before coming to Calgary. "They may not be chefs, but they bring expertise about their cuisine. We hope they take something in return."

Providing work experience

Founded in 1997 as a Collective Kitchen, EthniCity Catering began as a peer support group for women in a church basement and has grown into a full commercial kitchen, providing work experience and training to immigrants during their transition to Canada.

Students in the EthniCity Catering Training Program have the opportunity to learn and expand their culinary knowledge as well as safe food handling practices, assisting with orders, delivery and serving, and have the opportunity to take on paid shifts as well.

Staff and students at EthniCity Catering. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Each course runs for 10 weeks with a group of 16 students, who learn in the classroom as well as in the kitchen and on location at catering jobs, under the wing of Sehgal.

The group generated $216,000 last year, with profits reinvested into the program.

Menu inspired by global cuisine

"The program helps them practice their English skills in a safe environment as well," says director of innovation Harry Yee, who oversees special projects including EthniCity. "And of course they get to learn the language of the kitchen. We're hoping to give them some additional skills and knowledge when they apply for a job."

The Centre for Newcomers serves over 10,000 new Canadians each year. With a staff of 130 in their northeast office and students and visitors often in the building for classes and other events, the caterers have a built-in customer base for morning coffee and pastries and unique lunch offerings.

Some of the global cuisine prepared by EthniCity, a non-profit social enterprise that provides work experience and training to immigrants. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

One recent afternoon, they were cooking for a graduation party for the centre's eight-month accounting course, while across the hall from the kitchen, graduates and their families nibbled on samosas packaged in handmade dough, spring rolls, pakoras and cake.

EthniCity caters groups of up to 500, and offers their homemade appetizers — pakoras, fatayer, spring rolls, samosas, satay and the like — for customers to bake themselves at home.

The menu is inspired by cuisines from around the world — the regular menu includes chickpea chaat and bahjis, Philippine pancit noodles, Thai green curry, Indian korma, Arabic mujaddara, Greek moussaka and Russian stroganoff.

Bringing the world to the city

New dishes are regularly added, and they create custom menus. This weekend, Sehgal says, they're cooking for an event with dishes from Italy, Bali, Vietnam, Turkey and the Cook Islands.

"We're trying to give them exposure to as much as possible," says Sehgal. "The more you travel, the more places you live, the more you pick up."

For more information, to see a menu or order, visit the centre's website.


Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.