Each week, chef and food writer Suzi Fitzpatrick quizzes localindustry identities on what’s hot on the hospitality scene. This week, she satdown with Finding Futures Coffeehouse head chef Ruth Vickers-Willis.
Nanjing Night Net

I have always felt that being a chef is quite aselfish occupation. There are quite a few perks – a constant flow of coffee, wesample many a wine while tasting our fine menus and, when suppliers bring inthe latest tasty product, oh no, we will have to try that too. Of course, wework hard, but I sometimes feel pangs of guilt that the only thing we give backto the local community – apart from moments of gastronomic satisfaction – arefat bums and the occasional hardened artery. But Ruth Vickers-Willis is theexception to the rule.

Suzi:Tell me about Finding Futures…

Ruth: Finding Futures is acommunity-based, not-for-profit employment and training agency for people witha disability, injury or disadvantage. Finding Futures is funded by theDepartment of Employment and Workplace Relations as a provider within thedisability employment network. They have been in Ballarat for 15 years and area registered training organisation.

S:You are the head chef here at the Finding Futures Coffeehouse. How long has thecafe been operating?

R: The cafe here in DovetonStreet North will celebrate its first birthday on Monday. That’s also the RSPCACupcake Day. I’m making and selling some very cute puppy cupcakes.

S:Tell me how a typical day plays out for you…

R: I start at 7am. Ipurchase fresh ingredients every day, and prep all the food for the cafe. ThenI do lunch service. Then I have daily catering commitments and classes in theafternoon, so I must plan and stay very organised. At the moment, I have onetrainee in the kitchen with me. She is completing her Certificate II inHospitality. Most days end well into the evening.

S:That’s a lot to do while also training and teaching life skills…

R: I’m flat out, but Ireally enjoy working on the TTE (Training To Employment) program. Many youngpeople finish secondary education and don’t have the skills to go further dueto disability. Here, at Finding Futures, we teach them life skills for the openemployment market – things like how to catch the bus to work and open a bankaccount. I teach nutrition and home cooking, planning meals and shopping. Werecently had four past student graduate. They are now looking for jobs in theBallarat community.

S:On top of all that work, you spend quite a lot of time travelling…

R: Yes, I live in Ocean Groveand some nights I just don’t make it home, so I stay locally in my Ballaratbungalow.

S:What’s some of our unique Ballarat food customs you have discovered?

R: What’s with the slices?Ballarat is having a love affair with slices. It’s taken me a while, but I’vejust perfected the jelly slice.

S:Don’t I know it! I left Ballarat at the end of the 1980s and it was farewell toMarie biscuits and condensed milk. Twenty years later, I returned, not havingeven seen a slice in all that time, but you’re right – as soon as I was back,it’s slice town! We do them all here in Ballarat – you name it, we will put itin a slice.

R: Well, I need help.People of Ballarat, bring me your recipes, so I can fulfil your cateringrequirements and teach the next generation how to fill their pantry.

S:What’s your food philosophy?

R: Good, balanced nutrition– it’s not rocket science. The kids these days eat rubbish. I always say ‘showme what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are’.

S:The cafe is a great representation of this philosophy…

R: Yes, everything we serveis made or baked fresh on the premises. But it’s a battle – I am constantlyfighting the monster deep fryer diet addicts.

S:Can other chefs, cooks and restaurants volunteer their services to help outwith training at Finding Futures?

R: It would be great tohave a few more restaurants involved, especially with work placement andexperience. And I’m looking forward to some help with my slice portfolio.

FindingFutures Coffeehouse, 30 Doveton Street North, Ballarat

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