Nourishing. Satisfying. Inspired. Honest. These are words that can describe a well-balanced plate, and a well-balanced life. And if you were to ask a student of the London Training Centre’s (LTC) food skills program you might hear that they’re one and the same.
“From cradle to grave, a large part of what we do as humans involves food – whether alone or in concert with other people,” explains LTC Executive Director David Corke. “It’s connected intimately to our close relationships and it acts as a catalyst to engage other people.”
Considered to be a test-run in the food business, the free, three-week Local Food Skills program has been rapidly expanding over the past five years, incorporating each facet of the human relationship with food. As a self-funded social enterprise, the LTC offers an astounding array of business channels that allow students an opportunity to gain a wholesome and practical perspective on what it takes to grow, harvest, process, retail, cook and serve healthy and unique food items.
In the past year the LTC has made a strong leap into catering and retail, offering students yet more experiences beyond the essential skills they learn in the centre’s kitchen. Local Food Feasts Catering offers students a chance
to develop menus based on local seasonal food at its peak. New retail locations in both the Covent Garden Market and the Masonville Farmers’ Market place students front and centre, selling fresh produce and lunch fare that have been sourced from the program’s five-acre organic plot on the outskirts of London.
The LTC has a reputation for achieving excellence in whatever new programs it cooks up, and a holistic approach is the cornerstone of the food skills program. Students are often surprised by their own capabilities, and the passion they find in themselves. “During an evaluation someone in the program said ‘you’ve given me my spirit back,’” says Chef Instructor Josie Pontarelli. “When you see someone having that experience through food, getting that hope and confidence back — that’s pretty amazing.”
Head Chef and Program Manager Steve James, who joined the LTC five years ago, is no stranger to epiphanies striking in unexpected ways. After 30 years of an illustrious career as a chef, which took him around the world, James found himself uninspired and in search of meaning. He was drawn to the dirt, traded in his chef hat for a garden hoe for two years, and finally dug to the root of what it meant to have a human connection to food.
“When I left cooking and started farming I gained a greater respect for food — what it takes to grow it and, when it comes into the restaurant, how you should treat it,” he says, explaining that participants are taught how to draw out the best in each product. “A lot of people come out of here after three weeks and leave with the notion that there’s a lot more out there than they had been expecting.”
‘Unexpected’ could be a tagline for the LTC, which has been finding success in unique ways that keep the centre in touch with the community. From the annual Food for Thought fundraiser hosted at their garden plot, to the monthly dinners in the centre’s kitchen, to food donations to local missions and the rental of their kitchen to up-and-coming food businesses, the LTC has found effective ways of keeping itself in the business of helping others.
Chef Pontarelli says it has been important for her to live the family oriented life that she teaches to her students. She feels that the pendulum guiding social interaction is due to swing back to favouring real human connections — like those we used to enjoy over the dinner table. “People are starting to ask why am I in the car for hours? Why are my kids enrolled in 20 activities? Why am I eating food from a box — and why do I feel unhealthy?” she says. “I come from a generation where, when I was growing up, food was prepared from scratch.”
Among her repertoire of baked goods Chef Pontarelli takes pride in her sour dough bread, and a unique treasure — a ginger cookie recipe that came from her grandmother’s grandmother.
It is evident from listening to the two instructors banter, and seeing the order of their kitchen and the large stores of preserves on their shelves, that these chefs have an easy but honest approach that translates well into a learning environment. Chef James jokes that Pontarelli’s office is like a grandmother’s cold cellar, packed to the rafters with pickled preserves. Chef Pontarelli likens James’s excitement over seed catalogues to a child with a new Christmas toy catalogue.
With that kind of passion channeled towards advocacy for careers in foodservice, and a commitment to a local and sustainable food system, it’s no wonder the program has been gaining incredible momentum. “Community and human impact work,” explains program director David Cork. “Whether people are with us for three weeks or they encounter us at an event, or we cater their wedding — the impact is entirely tied to the way that my colleagues teach and the participants who are part of the food creation moments. Our commitment and our passion about the seasonality of food and durable communities are evident.“
To learn more about the London Training Centre (or to book your spot for the next monthly dinner), visit the website.
TANYA CHOPP is London-based marketing communications specialist and freelance writer whose work is focused on the promotion of health, wellness and support of the arts. She cooks with wine, and sometimes she even adds it to the food.