Each week, chef and food writer Suzi Fitzpatrick quizzes local industry identities on what’s hot on the hospitality scene. This week, she sat down with Finding Futures Coffeehouse head chef Ruth Vickers-Willis.
I have always felt that being a chef is quite a selfish occupation. There are quite a few perks – a constant flow of coffee, we sample many a wine while tasting our fine menus and, when suppliers bring in the latest tasty product, oh no, we will have to try that too. Of course, we work hard, but I sometimes feel pangs of guilt that the only thing we give back to the local community – apart from moments of gastronomic satisfaction – are fat bums and the occasional hardened artery. But Ruth Vickers-Willis is the exception to the rule.
Suzi: Tell me about Finding Futures...
Ruth: Finding Futures is a community-based, not-for-profit employment and training agency for people with a disability, injury or disadvantage. Finding Futures is funded by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations as a provider within the disability employment network. They have been in Ballarat for 15 years and are a registered training organisation.
S: You are the head chef here at the Finding Futures Coffeehouse. How long has the cafe been operating?
R: The cafe here in Doveton Street North will celebrate its first birthday on Monday. That’s also the RSPCA Cupcake 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. I purchase fresh ingredients every day, and prep all the food for the cafe. Then I do lunch service. Then I have daily catering commitments and classes in the afternoon, so I must plan and stay very organised. At the moment, I have one trainee in the kitchen with me. She is completing her Certificate II in Hospitality. 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 I really enjoy working on the TTE (Training To Employment) program. Many young people finish secondary education and don’t have the skills to go further due to disability. Here, at Finding Futures, we teach them life skills for the open employment market – things like how to catch the bus to work and open a bank account. I teach nutrition and home cooking, planning meals and shopping. We recently had four past student graduate. They are now looking for jobs in the Ballarat community.
S: On top of all that work, you spend quite a lot of time travelling...
R: Yes, I live in Ocean Grove and some nights I just don’t make it home, so I stay locally in my Ballarat bungalow.
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’ve just perfected the jelly slice.
S: Don’t I know it! I left Ballarat at the end of the 1980s and it was farewell to Marie biscuits and condensed milk. Twenty years later, I returned, not having even 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 it in a slice.
R: Well, I need help. People of Ballarat, bring me your recipes, so I can fulfil your catering requirements 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 ‘show me 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 serve is made or baked fresh on the premises. But it’s a battle – I am constantly fighting the monster deep fryer diet addicts.
S: Can other chefs, cooks and restaurants volunteer their services to help out with training at Finding Futures?
R: It would be great to have a few more restaurants involved, especially with work placement and experience. And I’m looking forward to some help with my slice portfolio.
Finding Futures Coffeehouse, 30 Doveton Street North, Ballarat