“Calgary Centre for Newcomers – Ethnicity Catering”

February 17, 2018, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC News)

“Sharing a meal remains one of the best ways to get to know someone, and to learn more about different cultures and backgrounds,” notes Julie Van Rosendaal of CBC News. It is also a good way to make immigrants feel at home and get grounded in the skills they need to find employment and contribute economically, as a Calgary, Alberta-based nonprofit demonstrates.

The Centre for Newcomers was founded in 1988 and is a large, multifaceted nonprofit with a budget of close to $9 million (CDN) that provides services to immigrants—or, to use the term the nonprofit prefers, “new Canadians.” The organization, the group writes on its website, “was formed specifically to respond to the need for services for refugee claimants, especially those fleeing the civil wars in Central America, and arriving overland in Calgary.”

The Centre was founded by the Mennonite church congregations of Calgary, with the support of Mennonite Central Committee Alberta. “Mennonite” refers to a distinct theological tradition within Christianity, and also to two ethnic and cultural traditions through which this distinctive pacifist theology has been nurtured.

The Centre for Newcomers employs 130 and annually serves over 10,000 new Canadians. The organization’s mission is “To support newcomers and the receiving community in becoming a diverse, united community, through services and initiatives that create conditions of success for newcomers and that foster a welcoming environment in Calgary.” Beyond the social enterprise, the nonprofit provides comprehensive support, including such services as a savings program for children, financially literacy classes, mental health and domestic violence support services, English language courses, and job search assistance.

The social enterprise, which began in 1997, is called EthniCity Catering. Originally, it began as a peer support group for women in a church basement. Today, it provides work experience and training in a full commercial kitchen. The business, writes Van Rosendaal, “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 throughout Asia and the Middle East before coming to Alberta. “They may not be chefs, but they bring expertise about their cuisine. We hope they take something in return.”

“The regular menu,” Van Rosendaal explains, “includes chickpea chaat and bahjis, Philippine pancit noodles, Thai green curry, Indian korma, Arabic mujaddara, Greek moussaka and Russian stroganoff.” New dishes are regularly added, and the business can customize menus. Chef Sehgal told Van Rosendaal that they were prepping “for an event with dishes from Italy, Bali, Vietnam, Turkey and the Cook Islands.”

For each 10-week period, the program trains 16 students, who learn safe food handling practices and expand their culinary knowledge. Students learn in the classroom, in the kitchen, and on location at catering jobs, under Sehgal’s direction, where they can take on paid shifts. (EthniCity caters groups of up to 500.) They assist with taking orders, delivery, and serving. In 2017, the business generated $216,000 in revenue, with profits reinvested into the social enterprise.

The business also helps participants “practice their English skills in a safe environment,” says director of innovation Harry Yee. “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.” Chef Sehgal adds, “We’re trying to give them exposure to as much as possible. The more you travel, the more places you live, the more you pick up.”—Steve Dubb