The Dining Hall: The Fall from Expert to Amateur


A huge line-up of students waiting for their lunch.

One of the things JBFC does early in new staff training is have each person work a few days in each department (farm, dining hall, school, etc.) My first assignment was the Dining Hall. I was sat on a bench sitting across from Paulo – who would guide me through the first opportunity I had to prove myself a productive member of the staff.

Two large barrels of rinsed kale were sat by us and he demonstrated the proper technique for slicing it. Four to five at a time you would slice off the stems and then finely shave it with the knife into thin long strips. He did it with finesse and on my turn I hacked it into strips. “Thinner” he encouraged, though after a few tries he shrugged and accepted it was close enough.

As I sat there, slicing a mountain of kale, I reflected back on the closest job experience I had to this current task. In high school, like many of my classmates, I had my first job cutting roe out of fish. It was a tedious job and included hours of picking up a fish, slicing down its stomach from its gills to its tail, scooping out the contents which went in a box and then throwing the rest of the fish down a trough. No one wore gloves, since they only slowed you down, but everyone had to wear hairnets. I was clean shaven for one of the last times in my life since I refused to wear a beard net. You left the plant stinking of seafood, seeing fish when you closed your eyes, and a little richer.

Specifically I was thinking of a time when I managed to cut the very tip of my thumb off with the knife. I went to the manager’s office to be bandaged up with clear intentions to quit. However when he held up his hand with three fingers, I decided to push through.

This was – ironically – what I was thinking about when I let the knife get too close to my hand for the second time in my life. It cut flesh and nail on the tip of my thumb and immediately started bleeding. Paulo looked at me a bit surprised (perhaps having given me too much credit) and I shrugged and went off to find a band aid as not to get any blood in children’s food.

I had to go to my supervisor, who had met me not three days before, and sheepishly tell him that I’d cut myself. After cutting more kale, I had to go back for a second Band-Aid since the first lost its stick and got unstuck.

Admittedly I was feeling pretty terrible about the whole thing. First, I was embarrassed. I would have joked about cutting myself, but never would have thought I’d make such a rookie mistake. Second, I was feeling pretty helpless. I was going from a job where I knew how to do everything – or at least had the know how to figure it out – to cutting myself with a knife like a child. I eventually consoled myself by remembering that I am the volunteer coordinator and failure at first just gives me that much more ammunition when a volunteer has trouble with their assigned tasks.

Then again, the volunteers are in high school; they probably know how to use a knife!


The ladies cooking rice in large pots over wood fires.

The process of the dining room was impressive. It’s a huge building with the back sixth acting as the kitchen. There’s one gas burner, but most of the food is cooked outside on wood fires in big metal pots held up by rocks. The two ladies cooking made enough rice this way to feed over 350 people in record time. They accomplished what would have taken expensive industrial size appliances in Canada with some basic tools.


The food is scooped by staff onto metal


Teachers handing out food.

plates and the teachers hand them out. Today’s menu was rice and cooked veggies including kale, tomatoes, and onions. I scooped rice. As I tried to make each scoop uniform, I was told “less” by staff and “more” by students. Despite my lack of consistency, everyone left with full stomachs.

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