The True Top Chef - Salvation Army Canada

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    The True Top Chef

    The Salvation Army's Alvin Chong serves more than meals. January 24, 2018 by Joyce Starr-Macias
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    Faith & Friends
    "My work here is my passion," says Alvin Chong, here in The Salvation Army's Belkin House kitchen
    "My work here is my passion," says Alvin Chong, here in The Salvation Army's Belkin House kitchen
    Television's version of a tyrannical cook bears no resemblance to Alvin Chong’s caring leadership as head chef and food-service manager of The Salvation Army’s Belkin House in Vancouver.

    “Not every chef smokes and swears and is angry all the time,” says Alvin. But then, not every chef has the same goals he has. Alvin wants his culinary and management skills to reflect the love of Jesus.

    Dishwashing Therapy
    That’s not always easy, given the pressures of his multi-faceted job. His administrative tasks include managing the kitchen and overseeing staff who serve more than 100,000 meals a year to residents, paid workers and volunteers at the transitional housing facility.

    Responsible for an annual budget of $250,000, Alvin’s duties also include keeping track of inventory, a task that seems monumental since his kitchen staff goes through 10,000 litres of milk, 28,000 eggs, 20,000 pieces of fruit, 15,000 slices of bacon and 2,500 heads of lettuce every year. Not to mention the countless food donations that need to be sorted and processed.

    Asked to describe an average day, Alvin presents calendar pages so full of appointments and reminders that there is hardly any white space left. “Being food-services manager is mainly administrative but, on occasion, I will jump in to run the kitchen and even do some of the dishwashing. It’s quite therapeutic,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a typical day.”

    Alvin doesn’t take credit for the excellent food-services operation at Belkin House. He’s quick to say he couldn’t accomplish all that has to be done without the 11-member paid staff who run the kitchen, manage the volunteers, prepare  food and serve the daily meals  under his supervision.

    “We all work together as a team,” he states.

    Alvin refers to the staff members as “the Brady bunch,” mainly because of the diversity in their culture, personality, experience and gender. They are about evenly split between male and female, unusual in the typically male-dominated food industry.

    The team manages about 12 volunteers a day, who come as individuals or in groups, and are assigned tasks in food preparation, light cleaning and serving. In the process, they gain first-hand experience.

    Alvin also developed and supervises a culinary arts program that prepares recovering addicts for jobs in the food industry. Classes are kept small, usually three or four people at a time. In the past five years, 14 have
    successfully completed the program and graduated.

    “My vision for this program is that it should be industry-standard, and that no potential employer would have to question whether a graduate has the skills to do any kind of food service-related tasks, from fast food to fine dining.”

    On the Right Path
    Besides his food-services responsibilities, Alvin is also part of the nine-member chaplaincy team at Belkin House, which assists with spiritual formation, personal development programs and worship services.

    Team members also provide individual spiritual care, usually for Belkin House residents but sometimes for people who walk in off the street.

    One such person was a former restaurant owner from Quebec who went bankrupt and ran away from it all, somehow winding up across the country in a homeless shelter in Vancouver.

    “He’d been an unbeliever all his life,” says Alvin. “He knew nothing about The Salvation Army. He just wandered in to the front desk and said he needed to talk to someone.”

    Alvin and others on the chaplaincy team reached out to  him and offered encouragement and spiritual guidance. 

    “A year later, he still struggles with knowing who God is,” Alvin says, “but he has started going to a church and is on a path to spiritual healing.”

    Called to Serve
    The hospitality industry is something that has been part of Alvin’s life for 30 years, beginning when he was only 15 years old. He went on to graduate from culinary arts school and did a practicum at a Vancouver hotel owned by Canadian Pacific, which led to apprenticeship, employment and achieving a Red Seal Chef designation.
    Alvin, with the Vancouver skyline in the backgroundAlvin at Belkin House’s Roof Top Garden project, a Salvation Army initiative aimed at providing a way for clients, through mentoring, to learn skills such as time-management and accountability

    After leaving the hotel, Alvin worked as a food consultant and food-safety instructor, started a catering company and taught cooking classes in the public school system. He fine-tuned his career by going back to college and obtaining a teaching certificate so he could teach at a private college in Vancouver.

    Later, during a time when he was temporarily unemployed, Alvin received a call from an old friend, a former pastor who had joined The Salvation Army.

    “He told me about an open position at Belkin House that he thought I might be interested in,” Alvin recalls. “This was new territory for me as it would be my first foray into social services. I wanted to be sure God was leading me into it.”

    Prayer has been an important part of Alvin’s life as far back as he can remember. Raised in a Christian home, he married his childhood sweetheart, Lisa, whom he met at church. They have been married for 18 years and have three beautiful girls, aged 10, seven and five.

    Alvin says that God’s answer to his prayer about the job offer was a reminder that he had learned all he could about the food-services industry and that he was being offered a chance to give back to the community in the city where he was born and raised. He went to work at Belkin House soon afterward. That was seven years ago.

    “There hasn’t been a day when  I’ve dreaded coming to work or wondered if The Salvation Army is the place I’m supposed to be,” Alvin says. “My work here is definitely my passion, my home away from home, and I’ve never doubted the choice I made. God called me to serve here at Belkin House, and I will faithfully do it with all my heart, mind and soul.”

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