Those delicious aromas you may smell on First Street could be wafting out of the Collingwood Youth Centre (CYC).
Chef Rob Liberty hopes to ignite a passion for cooking with local teens through a year-old program, called Kids Feeding Kids, that sets local teens up with the skills they need to cook for themselves and the opportunity to make a career out of it.
“Food’s always going to be popular because they’re hungry and they’re kids and they’re interested,” said CYC manager Lea Pankhurst.
“If they’re not learning how to cook at home, and they’re not learning how to cook at school, where do you learn?” said Pankhurst. “This is a nice offset where they can pick up a few things... they might not even realize they’re learning, but they’ll come back to it later on.”
Liberty has a personal reason for choosing to volunteer his time toward teaching the program.
“When I was growing up, I spent some time in a group home myself. I had councillors around me. If it weren’t for those people or that experience, I believe that I could very well be on the street. It was kind of my saving grace,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for me. I wanted to be able to give back, and that’s why I got involved.”
Liberty graduated from the Stratford Chefs School in the early 2000s.
“I had already been cooking. I had been in the industry for quite some time,” he said recently in an interview with CollingwoodToday. “In fact, I had just got back from Europe and Australia. I had travelled a lot, I had those opportunities. One of the advantages of knowing how to cook is it didn’t matter where in the world I ended up, I could still get a job.”
After chef school, Liberty worked in a few different restaurants including the Fairmont Hotel in Kananaskis in Banff, AB. After that he moved to the Collingwood area, opening a few restaurants.
Eventually, Liberty says he got out of the food business. Currently, he owns his own home inspector business, but his passion for cooking remains.
Liberty got involved in the project, almost by chance.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” said Liberty. “I was interested in doing some volunteer work for the environment, particularly in water conservation.”
“So I went down to the Environment Network and spoke with them,” said Liberty. “They said they really needed someone down at the Collingwood Youth Centre ... [they were] looking for a chef to teach the kids to cook.”
The program is a collaboration between the Environment Network, Elephant Thoughts and other community partners.
Since Liberty joined up, the program has flourished. Pankhurst set up courses for food safe handling certification for teens interested in taking their skills further and Liberty reached out to the local restaurant community to see if there was any interest in possibly hiring students who had participated in the program.
“I saw a real opportunity there, so between the two of us we planned this sort of work exchange program,” says Liberty. “We’re really excited about launching this program.”
Liberty says they have had two teens so far who have completed the training and have gone on the secure employment in the area. One is working as a cook at Northwinds Brewhouse and Kitchen. Liberty says he has more restaurants interested than he has teens to set them up with.
“They’re dying to get people in their kitchens,” says Liberty with a laugh. “We talk a lot about starting at the bottom and working their way up, especially in the kitchen industry. Really, what we’re offering here is the opportunity to get ready, get a feel for it, and see if it’s your thing. If it’s something you like to do, then we can put you to work.”
Joseph Kolbe, 13, decided to come to the cooking class initially on the insistence of a friend. Now, he rarely misses it.
“I was really interested in cooking because my dad is actually a chef,” said Kolbe. “It was fun so I kept coming back.”
While Kolbe says he doesn’t necessarily see himself following in his dad’s footsteps, he enjoys the opportunity to gain cooking knowledge so he can cook for himself.
“I like cooking in general. It’s fun,” he said.
Liberty was recently recognized for his efforts by being awarded with the Paul Harris Fellow award from Rotary Club of Collingwood South Georgian Bay.
“I don’t do this for recognition. I do this because it brings me joy,” said Liberty. “It brings me joy knowing we’re teaching these kids an important skill. People these days are losing that (skill) because of convenience and time constraints.”
“We hope to be able to equip these kids with the necessary skills to be able to look after themselves,” he said.
The program runs on Friday nights at 5:30 p.m. For more information on the Collingwood Youth Centre, click here.