Cooking for residents of the Downtown Eastside is a dream come true for Shabnam Yazdani.
Yazdani, 28, is part of the first group of culinary arts students to take a new seven-month Vancouver Community College course at the newly created Vancouver Incubator Kitchen, a community kitchen on the ground floor of Save On Meats.
The aim of the course is to help aspiring chefs achieve skills to succeed in the food industry, while at the same time helping out the Downtown Eastside community by preparing meals that are distributed to nearby single-room occupancy hotels.
When Yazdani moved to the Lower Mainland from her native Iran where she was an engineer, she changed gears and pursued her passion for cooking.
“Since the time I was 14, I was always cooking with my mom and I realized that I love cooking more,” she said.
When she learned about the incubator kitchen program at the college, she jumped at the chance to enrol.
No tuition fee was charged for the first run of the course. The program received federal Labour Market Agreement funding, which is directed towards those under represented in the Canadian labour market such as persons with disabilities, members of First Nations, and recent immigrants.
The free nature of the course was the icing on the cake, Yazdani said.
The challenges for her so far have been learning the new ingredients of Canadian cuisine and the language. Before she started the course, she only knew a few words.
“I even didn’t know the name of the equipment, only the pot and the pan,” she said, with a laugh.
The support of her classmates and instructor chef Phillip Lie helped make her feel comfortable as she taste-tested the new food and expanded her vocabulary.
When the Courier paid the kitchen a visit at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning last week, Yazdani and the other 11 members of her class had been hard at work for two hours preparing 570 lunches to be delivered to community residents.
Lie said the advantage of the program is putting students under real world conditions and expectations. In addition to the meals they make for the community, students also benefit by having line experience in the kitchen of the busy Save On Meats Diner.
“This is different from most schools because this is a fast-paced restaurant,” Lie said.
In an interesting twist, many of the cooks at Save On are former VCC grads.
“The whole thing is not cannibalizing itself, it is feeding itself,” Lie said.
He hopes the program will expand so the class can make even more meals for those in need.
Yazdani’s ultimate goal is to open her own catering company where she would blend Persian and Canadian cuisine for weddings and other large events.
“If I can make it, I will be really happy, but if I can’t then that is fine, I tried.
As long as I am cooking, I am fine,” she said.