BY DR. RICHARD BERWICK
It’s tough to find cooks with engaging personalities and Canada-wide reputations, working hard hours at community venues like Collingwood Neighbourhood House (CNH). We have one at the Collingwood Saturday Breakfast Program and her name is Nafisa.
Nafisa Sultana arrived in Canada from Bangladesh in February 2009. She found her way to our kitchen five years ago, three years after I started scrambling eggs and washing dishes with other volunteers for the Saturday Breakfast Program in 2008.
Not your typical chef
In our work with a largely homeless or home-challenged group of regulars – of all ages and many ethnic backgrounds – we found in Nafisa a professional chef capable of organizing all the details of a successful program: food purchasing and storage, thoughtful preparation of balanced meals, guidance for the volunteers who range from high schoolers to the people of the diverse communities that comprise the staff and public of CNH.
On any given Saturday, you’ll find the jam-packed kitchen filled with volunteer galley hands with ethnic origins, and past lives, in Bangladesh (that’s Nafisa!), the Philippines, Japan, China, Vietnam, India, Kazakhstan, Korea, Canada and the U.S.
I’ve watched Nafisa move in her career seamlessly from refugee to resident, from hard labour at Pizza Hut, to cook and then chef at New Hope Community Services Society in Surrey and at Langara College – all the while earning her culinary arts degree at Vancouver Community College.
These have been difficult simultaneous commitments, but the extraordinary challenge that Nafisa counts as the work she treasures, above all else, is walking into our kitchen at 5:30 in the morning every Saturday and getting meals – breakfast and lunches – out to anywhere between 50 and 80 hungry people.
Not your typical Saturday
Here’s what it looked like in the kitchen on this particular early fall Saturday morning:
I arrive at the kitchen about 6:30 am, about an hour after Nafisa and Chris have lit the boilers and cranked up the ancient oven with a pilot light that works when you don’t look at it (I exaggerate, slightly). Nafisa, Chris and Viktoriya (last resident in Kazakhstan), are hard at work on the bag lunches, washing veggies, digging out the big fry pans that work well when the grill goes to sleep, as it did today.
Nafisa sees me step into her kitchen, gives me the usual bear hug through all of my guilty lateness and sharpens a couple of knives for me to chop the onions, peppers and tomatoes, and then to make a marinade for the omelets.
Advice from Nafisa: “If you use that cleaver, you’ll get the liquid over everything.” She’s right, of course. I can only bristle in my amateur-cookness. The sausages are burning in the oven, but only a little.
Volunteers file in and do the basics of breakfast: slicing loaves for toast, putting out the milk and juice, the peanut butter and margarine and jam, getting coffee out to the folks waiting for the call to come and pick up their breakfast plates – omelets, sausage, pilaf, fruit, apple cobbler for dessert, breakfast cereals on the side.
When it’s all over, we hear the occasional review from departing clients: “Thanks for everything. Eggs were a little hard.” “God bless.” And so it goes. Nafisa stands back to watch her kitchen run like a clock going backwards, dishes collected and washed, tables cleared, some of the men lingering quietly at their tables wanting to chat a bit about their week.
Nafisa is coming into her own professionally as first-rate Canadian chef, and will be honoured on November 2 in Toronto with the 2016 Be-a-Star (all-Canada outstanding chef) award from Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services for her work at Langara College. But she is at home with us at Collingwood for the long run, always with an astonishing well of energy on Saturday morning.
Dr. Richard Berwick is a volunteer with the Saturday Breakfast Program at Collingwood Neighbourhood House.
Copyright (c) 2016 Renfrew-Collingwood Community News