When he’s not fixing potholes or clearing snow from streets, CUPE 37 member Dan Van Tassell is sharing his passion for cooking and healthy food with Calgary teens living in group homes.
The professionally-trained chef started volunteering his time two years ago, motivated to help the teens make the most of what they were eating and give them a skill they’d have for life.
“They’re mainly troubled teens who’ve been kicked out of their houses. The group homes give them a certain allotment of food, but mostly they go to the food bank to collect food,” says Van Tassell.
“I thought instead of just buying Kraft Dinner or going to the food bank to collect KD or canned items, I could show how to get more nutrition out of what they’re getting at the food bank – ideas that are easy to cook, but that gives a bit more taste and flair, and nutrition of course.”
His tips and tricks are simple, but effective.
“Instead of passing over that can of beans, I show them how to take it and spice it up and make it their own. It’s not just a can of beans. If have an onion or if you have a little bit of paprika, that changes it. Or put some salsa in there. It’s good nutrition with lots of fibre,” he says.
Van Tassell’s love of food is a life-long affair that began in his youth, working in his father’s restaurants.
He trained as a chef at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, and went on to work everywhere from a high-end French restaurant in Calgary to an airplane food facility, with stops along the way in the kitchens at the Banff Springs Hotel and Jasper Park Lodge.
Working every night, weekend and holiday started to wear on him though, and he decided to change careers. After a stint as a truck driver, he took a job in the City of Calgary’s waste and recycling department 13 years ago. He worked for 12 years picking up residential garbage, and moved to the roads department just over a year ago.
His career switch didn’t change his love of cooking. On top of his group home work, Van Tassell cooks for CUPE 37’s waste and recycling workers’ social club, as well as the local’s Christmas party.
“I try to keep active in cooking, because I still love it. I still do wedding cakes on the side, just to keep my skill up. And I have a Stampede booth every year, where I sell BBQ beef on a bun,” says Van Tassell.
The work in the group homes was a slow and steady process of breaking down barriers and building trust with the teens.
“At first they were pretty stand-offish. I wasn’t having very good success at first,” he says. “I wasn’t too sure if I even wanted to continue. But I did, and eventually they came around and then they started to come up with suggestions, and they still do.
Van Tassell tries to work and connect with the residents one-on-one, an approach that’s paying off. “They’re starting to trust me now….there’s more conversation. They’re starting to talk about their school, things like that, talking about their problems…It’s nice to see them opening up a little bit.”
In addition to an open ear, Van Tassell is to give the teens an appreciation of healthy eating and cooking that will stick with them for life.
“I hope the kids have something they can grab hold on and take with them. Because I think cooking is an important thing for everybody. We all have to eat. Even if they don’t use all of everything they learned – because sometimes I push a bit hard on nutrition – I feel it’s important. Maybe they’ll even choose it for their lifestyle.”
On June 23, CUPE is relaunching Communities Day. It’s an annual celebration of public services and the people who deliver them.
This year has a special focus on CUPE members as community builders. We’ll be profiling the vital role members play — on the job and in their spare time—building strong communities. Get involved in Communities Day by visiting cupe.ca/communities.
We’re offering a CUPE sweatshirt to the first ten members who are profiled!