Creating community: Joshna Maharaj, Assistant Director of Food Services and Executive Chef, Ryerson University

By Sean Moon
Creating community: Joshna Maharaj, Assistant Director of Food Services and Executive Chef, Ryerson University

Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, once said: “Community organizing is all about building grassroots support. It’s about identifying the people around you with whom you can create a common, passionate cause.” For Joshna Maharaj, that philosophy is a full-time career.

As Assistant Director of Food Services and Executive Chef at Ryerson University, Maharaj has been instrumental in developing and implementing a new food strategy on the Toronto campus. Since joining the Ryerson team in 2013, Maharaj as been able to channel her contagious enthusiasm for local, sustainable food and from-scratch cooking into the creation of innovative food programming and campaigns that engage the university community — from students to culinary staff. Her previous work included stints at The Stop Community Food Centre as well as a number of hospitals, giving her a bit of a reputation as what she calls “the Institutional Food Lady.”

“I have been very much focused on grassroots food security and community food security rather than working in restaurants,” says Maharaj. “It’s awesome work and I am thrilled to be able to do it.”

Feeding a community

Maharaj’s love for feeding her community started when she was a young girl. As the eldest daughter in an Indian family, Maharaj says she grew up in the kitchen.

“That was just where I was expected to be and there was really no choice about any of that,” says Maharaj. “But as I grew older and spent some time in kitchens myself, I started really understanding what potential exists for cooks and that one pot of food can have a literally exponential impact on an entire community of people. I got really excited about being able to have that kind of connection and that kind of positive impact on large numbers of people.”

Before joining Ryerson, Maharaj was working to reconnect good, wholesome food with wellness and to create new models for food procurement and production. While consulting with the Hospital for Sick Children, Maharaj helped to set up a network of local food vendors for hospital purchasing, and worked with the hospital administration on campaigns to increase awareness about local food, sustainability and patient health. Her strong community connections had been earlier instilled during her time at The Stop, where Maharaj developed a number of community food programs that raised the bar on what is possible for a “grassroots” kitchen.

Cooking for the greater good

“For me, food is about being a vehicle for really good intentions,” says Maharaj. “I know that is way more head-in-the-clouds kind of talking than most people want to entertain, but I really do think as cooks we have an honour and a great responsibility when we feed people. In every kitchen I have run, I always tell my staff that while they are putting on their aprons and washing their hands, they need to put the madness of their lives aside and focus on the fact that for the next three or four hours we are going to put food together for this community of people.”In her current role at Ryerson, Maharaj oversees the campus cafeterias and foodservice at student residence, including several coffee kiosks around campus. And while her typical day is more likely to involve poring over architectural plans for new buildings and kitchens than donning her chef’s jacket, Maharaj still finds plenty of intrinsic value in her job.

“It’s true, I’ve become a bureaucrat,” Maharaj says with an easy laugh. “But what I love about my days at work is that there are so many different scenarios I can find myself in. I have a lot of meetings with a lot of plans for the future. It’s exciting because I like talking and I like planning things.”

Future plans

Along with all of her past accomplishments and current successes, Maharaj has some interesting future plans of her own. Not surprisingly, they continue to reflect her philosophy about connecting food and community.

“I’ve always been super-curious about how we feed prisoners, and the politics around that. I’m curious to learn what the culture of food is in a prison and to see how good food and even service finds its way into that context, if at all.

“You have to be open and ready for new ideas. Considering everything from sourcing challenges to real pushes for sustainability to rethinking menus and involving more diverse flavours, I think that what brought us to this point in the foodservice industry is not what’s going to take us into the future. We have to be open and innovative and embrace new ideas for what our future together is going to look like.”

“I would also love to build a cooking school that specifically raises chefs like me, that pushes the idea that chefs can be raised and grown to work in a context outside of restaurants. It would be some sort of culinary/social work/political science hybrid and give students solid sustainability knowledge as well as the production and knife skills.

“It would also help them to understand the broader context of how these elevated cooking skills and real dedication to food can impact people at the grassroots, community level.”

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