A beloved chef takes on institutional food and sparks a revolution
Good food generally doesn’t arrive on a tray: hospital food is famously ridiculed, chronic student hunger is deemed a rite of passage, and prison meals are considered part of the punishment. But Chef Joshna Maharaj knows that institutional kitchens have the ability to produce good, nourishing food, because she’s been making it happen over the past 14 years. She’s served meals to people who’d otherwise go hungry, baked fresh scones for maternity ward mothers, and dished out wholesome, scratch-made soups to stressed-out undergrads. She’s determined to bring health, humanity, and hospitality back to institutional food while also building sustainability, supporting the local economy, and reinvigorating the work of frontline staff.
Take Back the Tray is part manifesto, part memoir from the trenches, and a blueprint for reclaiming control from corporations and brutal bottom lines. Maharaj reconnects food with health, wellness, education, and rehabilitation in a way that serves people, not just budgets, and proves change is possible with honest, sustained commitment on all levels, from government right down to the person sorting the trash. The need is clear, the time is now, and this revolution is delicious.
Joshna Maharaj is a chef, two-time TEDx speaker, and activist. She believes strongly in the power of chefs and social gastronomy to bring hospitality, sustainability, and social justice to the table. Joshna is a regular guest on CBC Radio, a passionate public speaker, and co-hosts The Hot Plate, a food and drink podcast. She was the recipient of Restaurants Canada’s Culinary Excellence Award in 2018.
As we got down to the wire, we raced around getting food set on the belt line for service. We put a little note from Rod on the trays, mentioning that everything was scratch-made and locally sourced. The plates were bright and alive, with food that looked delicious and drew you in. There was real, honest flavour and the distinct taste of care and attention. I loved seeing Rod on the line with the tray assembly team and savoured how obviously proud and happy everyone was about the meal we were serving that day. Rod and I excitedly took a tray up to a patient in the orthopaedic ward who had a broken leg. We explained what we were doing, and that he was the first one to receive this awesome local lunch. This patient couldn’t believe his luck and exclaimed about how delicious the tray looked. The patient in the bed beside him asked urgently whether he would be receiving this tray too, and it was really nice to finally be able to say yes.
Our team reported notably clean plates when the trays came back down, and there was even a bit of food leftover for the staff to have a taste. I wanted the team to see what was possible in that kitchen and that I wanted to help them get there. Many staff came up to me later with all sorts of thoughtful ideas for how to adjust our operations to make meals like this happen. That service was definitely a hustle, and we were all pretty exhausted, but I was so grateful that we had the chance to do this, and that it worked. In the deep of a February winter in Ontario we served an all-local lunch made from scratch for hospital patients. And when I reconciled numbers at the end of service, I learned that we only spent an additional $0. 33/person for ingredients for that day’s lunch. It’s a relatively small investment for an exponentially better dining experience for patients. But, yes, it’s an investment, and we do actually have to spend some more money on patient meals.
I recently ran into Rod and was telling him about having just written about our time together cooking lunch at The Scarborough Hospital. His face lit up, and he reminded me that the woman who works on the internal hospital switchboard told us that in 21 years, our lunch was the first patient meal that received no complaints. “The first meal in 21 years with no complaints!” he exclaimed. “That’s a pretty clear message, if you ask me. ”
“The author is an engaging and dedicated advocate for those she's feeding. This is tremendous food for thought for a new decade. ” — Quill & Quire
“Many of us have been appalled by the loveless fare being offered at institutions here in Canada. We all know better. Thank you, Joshna Maharaj for stepping into the fray and challenging this sad state of affairs. In Take Back the Tray we savour a passionate and insightful analysis born of many years on the ground working in the institutional food service reality. The writing is an inspiring call to action to restore dignity and deliciousness coupled with a large dose of hospitality to our institutional dining experience. I'll be doing my bit. ” — Jamie Kennedy, chef
“Why is institutional food so bad when it could, and should, be so good? With hard-won insights and deep commitment, Joshna Maharaj takes us on a mouthwatering tour of what our collective food future might be. Her vision points the way to how we can put the hospitality back in hospital food and the generosity into a new generation of socially produced acts of care. ” — Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System
“Written in the voice of a friend and someone who cares, you can't help but make this cause rise to the top of your list in pushing for change. ” — For the Love of the Page blog