Chef Chris Irving, creator of Yukon Chef Collective, prepares meals at Well Bread Culinary Centre’s teaching space on April 10. (Alistair Maitland Photography)

Yukon chefs helping hungry locals with meal donations to Whitehorse food bank

The initiative is being powered by monetary donations on GoFundMe and food donations from suppliers

A group of chefs have banded together to create weekly meals to donate to the Whitehorse food bank to ensure that community members in need have access to good food.

The self-dubbed Yukon Chef Collective has been dropping off packages of 250 to 280 meals at the food bank for three weeks now, with offerings so far including scallop chowder and baked potatoes, pasta with homemade sauce, and pork-bone soup.

The initiative was the brainchild of chef Chris Irving, who said the idea rose from the ashes of an unfortunately-timed would-be business launch.

Irving had spent the winter working in Switzerland, he said in an interview April 15, and was planning on launching a business offering “personalized culinary experiences” — cooking classes, for example — when he returned to Whitehorse in March.

However, things began changing “quite rapidly” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and by the time he got back, new recommendations around physical distancing dashed the hopes of holding any classes.

Irving said he already had a class lined up, for which he had already bought all the ingredients — a class for youth from Kwanlin Dün First Nation on how to prepare a basic meal. He ended up cooking all the food by himself and delivering the meals to participants’ families.

That process sparked an idea.

“You know, through adversity came opportunity, and I obviously had to shift my current business model because I couldn’t be offering these culinary experiences like I wanted to,” he said.

“… So with the thought of preparing these meals for people up in places that might need them more than others, you know, hearing about certain facilities that feed people that were getting closed down and stuff, I knew that there was a need for this within the community.”

Irving said he did some research and settled on sending meals to the Whitehorse food bank before launching a GoFundMe page in late March called “Helping Hungry Locals.” He initially set a goal of raising $5,000 with the promise of using that money to deliver 1,000 meals, cooking the first batch of 250 meals by himself in the empty Well Bread Culinary Centre teaching space.

“The first batch that I did, it was a lot of work because … it’s a commercial space but it’s not set up to do large batches of anything, so I had multiple dozen induction burners cooking small batches of soup for 250 portions,” he recalled.

“It was a lot of work and after I did it, it took four days to do the first one and I thought, ‘Man, that’s a lot of work, that’s a full-time job to do this every week.’”

That’s when Irving, who said he’s known for collaborating with other chefs and restaurants, turned to the local culinary community to see if anyone else would be interested in helping out.

Brian Ng, co-owner of and chef at the Wayfarer Oyster House, said he and Irving reached out to each other about the initiative at around the same time.

“Whitehorse is a small town and the group of cooks and chefs in town are also very small as well, so we all kind of know each other and know what each other are up to,” Ng said in an interview April 15.

“I knew Chris was starting up a business of his own on top of (making) the food for the food bank so I thought I’d extend an olive branch and help him out and we just kind of formed this super group of chefs to feed the community… I like to call us the culinary version of the Avengers and we’re all just banding together to cook some food for people who need it.”

Irving said the “super group” creates its meals based on donations from restaurants and suppliers (G-P Distributing donated pork bones; Pizza Hut gave 60 pounds of rotini pasta; G&P donated 250 pounds of potatoes and 60 pounds of scallops). The chefs cook their contributions in their own commercial kitchens before coming together to assemble the meals. The meals are then packaged and delivered on a Tuesday, the day the food bank begins its distribution for the week.

The food bank did not respond to requests for comment.

Both Irving and Ng emphasized that the chefs involved, which also include Luke Legault from the Wandering Bison and Raymond Magnuson of Smoke and Sow, are not being paid; they’re donating their time.

“It keeps us happy and inspired and motivated too, you know, during this time,” Irving said.

“We’re all trying to, you know, keep our heads above the water and stay positive and this kind of camaraderie of these culinary locals … keeps us inspired and gives us something to do and kind of gives us a bit of hope, right?”

Ng said for him, it was about “just giving back to the community, no rhyme or reason.”

“It just felt like the right thing to do and I don’t want to say I have all the time in the world right now because I don’t … but yeah, I can’t do what frontline healthcare workers do, I don’t know how to take care of anybody besides feeding them, so this is the only way I saw possible for me to give back to the community,” he said.

The GoFundMe money, Irving said, is going solely towards buying ingredients and packaging for the meals, with each batch costing about $1,000.

As of the morning of April 23, the GoFundMe page had raised more than $11,000 in donations since March 23, with Irving upping the goal from the easily-smashed $5,000 to $20,000.

“I didn’t expect that all,” he said of what he described as the “really positive feedback” from Yukoners.

Irving said he plans on keeping up with the meal deliveries “until all the donations dry up,” but added that he hopes that doesn’t happen.

“This whole situation, this COVID … will blow over at some point, but you know, there’s no reason why (the Yukon Chef Collective) can’t continue and carry on,” he said. “I mean, there was homelessness and hunger before this whole thing happened and I’m sure there will be after too so, you know, I think this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we can see in the future.”

Anyone interested in donating to the Helping Hungry Locals GoFundMe can do so at gofundme.com/f/meals-for-whitehorse.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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