When he was just 10 years old, Chef Ric Watson remembers how it was his job to do the grocery shopping all by himself.
"I could barely see over the cart going down the aisle," he said.
"I was given a certain amount of money and I had to make that work. I had to learn how to do a budget at that age," he added. "I never got it right and I'd get to the cash and they'd say 'here comes little Ricky Watson.'"
Now known to everyone simply as Chef Ric in his job as executive chef and director of food services at the Ottawa Mission, he paints a grim picture of growing up in Kingston, Ont., with a single mother who was severely mentally ill and unable to care for him.
Being self-sufficient was a hard lesson, but one that stayed with him through tough times living on the street. Chef Ric was able to turn his life around and now, decades later, he helps others do the same.
"This is my mission, and it will be until the day I die," he said.
When he was growing up, his mother was a bootlegger. He remembers that when he opened the kitchen cupboards looking for food there was rarely much of anything but alcohol.
"I remember being so hungry and how that felt — that there was nothing to eat," he said. "I know what it's like to go hungry."
Now 58 and working in what might be one of the busiest kitchens in the country, Chef Ric plunges a plastic spoon into a giant vat of turkey soup that will be part of the day's meal to feed hundreds of people in need.
He closes his eyes and brings the soup to his lips.
"It's delicious! That's perfect, thank you," he says to one of his sous-chefs, his voice as staccato as his movements as he hurries off to complete his next task.
These days Chef Ric spends most of his time at the Ottawa Mission's new operation that bears his name.
Chef Ric's — for those local to Ottawa it is located at the site of the old Rideau Bakery — is many things. There's a storefront that serves affordable prepared meals. A catering business, the profits from which go back to fund the institution's charitable work. And the Mission's Mobile food truck program, which now serves a whopping 2,600 meals a day to help feed the hungry in and around Ottawa.
"If I could have anything, I would have it that no one in this city goes hungry or in this country goes hungry. Because it's Canada. We're in Canada — it shouldn't be this way," Chef Ric said.
And yet, since the pandemic began, the number of people who rely on food prepared by the Mission has never been higher.
The total number of meals the Ottawa Mission has provided has risen from about 520,000 in 2019-2020 to almost 728,000 in 2020- 2021 — an increase of almost 40 per cent. And this fiscal year the Mission is on track to serve between 900,000 and 1 million meals.
"When COVID hit, our numbers kept going up and up and up," Chef Ric said. "People, they can't afford to buy food, and so many people lost their jobs … people are going hungry."
But with the situation as bad as it is, Chef Ric understands that simply feeding people isn't enough.
He insists the most important thing he does in his kitchen is train some of the same people who once needed the Mission's help, so they can find work and support themselves.
'I don't care about your past , I care about your future'
On this day Chef Ric is teaching his students to make eggplant parmesan. They huddle around the metal counter where the ingredients are neatly laid out, and he begins to demonstrate.
The new kitchen at Chef Ric's has allowed the Ottawa Mission to expand the Food Services Training program to 25 students, and they aim to graduate 75 students a year.
"Remember when you cut the eggplant parm you should be able to see the layers in it," he said. "It is a very attractive dish."
The dozen or so students in the class get to work cutting eggplant, grating cheese and breaking eggs.
The Ottawa Mission has run its six-month Food Services Training Program since 2004, but Chef Ric says the economic upheaval of the pandemic has meant he's never seen so many people who want a spot.
"People want to be self-sufficient," he said. "They don't want to have to count on social services or stand in line for a slice of bread. You know, they want to be able to support themselves and their families."
To be accepted into the training program there's an application process and an interview, but being in a tough spot in your life and needing help is the main criteria.
WATCH | Erica La France describes how Chef Ric Watson has not only taught her how to cook, but also helped her develop self-confidence:
The program, which has a waiting list, is funded by donations and by the profits of the catering company the Mission runs out of the same kitchen.
"We show that we care. I've had people in my arms crying," Chef Ric said. "We show compassion, forgiveness. I always say, 'I don't care about your past, I care about your future.'"
In class, students continue to work on the eggplant parmesan recipe following the chef's directions closely.
"Ernie, go find some milk please," Chef Ric asks student Ernie McIntyre once he's finished cutting the eggplant into thin slices.
McIntyre, 57, lives with his wife and daughter. He says the pandemic has been hard on his family, and when his unemployment dragged on he got desperate.
"I hustled, which is something I am trying to get out of, get away from," said McIntyre. "Whatever it took to get myself some money."
A friend of McIntyre's had completed the cooking class and told him all about it. Now, after six months of study, McIntyre has a job offer cooking at the Salvation Army.
"And so this to me is like a light turned on and I walked through a different kind of door," he said.
"So that's why I'm so happy. Now I smile and realize that I have options. I have opportunities where I can earn some money, and it doesn't have to be in the wrong way.
"I don't have to worry if I am gonna go to jail. I just go to work."
A kitchen saved him
To his students, Chef Ric seems to be as much a life coach as a teacher. He explains that he relates to their struggles because he's lived many of them himself.
As a kid in Kingston, Ont., he was forced to grow up fast.
At the age of 14 he was using drugs and alcohol. Then his mother kicked him out of the house.
"That was a pretty traumatic time," he said.
Chef Ric stopped going to school. He couch-surfed and spent nights on the street. He says he'd almost given up when he found a job washing dishes in the kitchen at a women's residence at Queen's University.
After that everything changed.
"I remember sometimes I would sleep in the storeroom, and then in the morning come out and just start working, and it felt like a home," he said. "The cooks would be really nice to me."
After several months, one of those cooks pulled him aside and gave him some advice.
"He said to me: 'You know, you can do better, you can go to school, you can be someone.' And I never had anyone tell me that before."
Chef Ric followed the advice and eventually graduated from the cooking program at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C.
Asked where he thinks he'd be now if he hadn't found that kitchen years ago, Chef Ric doesn't hesitate.
"I'd be dead.
"My life was getting worse and worse. I was getting involved with the worst people. That would have led to death for sure," he said.
Today, Chef Ric is committed to helping his students the way he was helped by a caring cook four decades ago.
Paying it forward
An hour or so after the lesson began, the eggplant parmesan is ready to be assembled.
Chef Ric gives that job to Casey Pink.
Pink was a teenager when she got into drugs after her father died.
"I wasn't eating. I was very emaciated," she said. "And just drugs was the most important thing to me. I really didn't have any friends. I wasn't in touch with my family."
Through the Food Services Training Program, Pink now has all the certifications she needs to work in a commercial kitchen. She recently found work cooking at the same shelter where she ate when she needed help.
The Ottawa Mission's Food Services Program says 90 per cent of its students who graduate find jobs.
"I don't want my daughter to go through what I went through," Pink said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to break the cycle for her. I'm still struggling with it myself, but I care more about my daughter than I did about the substances that I was addicted to, and I'm able to be a positive role model for her."
Pink finishes building the layers of the eggplant parmesan, and Chef Ric compliments her on a job well done.
Chef Ric said he found a home and a family when he started working in a kitchen as a teenager, and that is what he wants to give to his students — a place where they can belong.
"We're all the same when it comes down to it. We just want to be loved.
"We need people to care about us and we need to care about other people. It's a simple process, really."
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