Jean-Francois Archambault: Food recovery and a social vision

Jean-Francois Archambault has created a “turn-key” solution to food recovery, making it easy for chefs to send their surplus of delicious prepared food into communities that need it. The result is over 500,000 meals (200 tons of food!) being delivered to the needy each year in Quebec, food that would have gone into the garbage. The organization he created in 2002, La Tablée des Chefs, also has a huge culinary education initiative aimed at transforming the way people think about food. The result has great promise for improving the health of our next generation.

Ashoka: Why did you get involved in food recovery and education?

J.F.: I’ve had this idea about food recovery since 1996 when I was a student at the Quebec Institute for Hotel Management. In 2000, when I was working at the Fairmont Hotel in sales, my mother died at the age of 49. It was my mother’s death that made me think I couldn’t afford to waste time. It’s a total mystery how much time we each have on earth so it’s important to make it count. Life needs to be lived to the fullest. So now, I am a doer.

Ashoka: How did you launch this program? What were the first steps?

J.F.: When I was developing my career in sales in the hospitality industry, I was disturbed by the immense waste of good food left over from conferences and weddings. At the same time, food banks were telling me that they had periodic shortages. I really puzzled over it: how to recover all that food that was going to waste.

Ashoka: Many hotels do food recovery. What makes your system unique?

J.F.: Chefs are really busy, all the time. So to get more chefs on board, I knew we had to develop a “turn-key” system. It had to be very easy so we made a computerized system. Stock is itemized; ingredients are labelled; and the food is packaged into individual portions. Projected surplus is estimated and advance planning put in place.

Ashoka: What were the problems in getting food recovery to be part of the normal habit of chefs.

J.F.: It was hard at first. First of all, there was the hesitation on the part of the chefs to send food out into the community that might result in legal action. They were eventually reassured by the Good Samaritan Act which protects them from that type of liability.

Secondly, there has to be a management champion who supports the idea of a pilot project. And then there needs to be a management champion who supports the idea of a pilot project. We found a champion like that at the Bell Centre and they agreed to try our food recovery program. The results were surprising to the rest of their management team. In the first year, 70,000 meals (9 tons of food) were recovered from the 134 Executive Suites. That motivated others to sign on, so a community of chefs began to form around the idea.

That’s the third, and maybe the most important, element: the social commitment of chefs who have a determination to reduce waste. Not all chefs “buy in”.

Ashoka: What was the role of government in developing food recovery?

J.F.: We worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture in Quebec. They generously allowed their staff time to help us identify specific food handling limitations in the early phases. This was incredibly important. In 2010, La Tablée des Chefs received the Phenix Environmental Award from the Government of Quebec for our sustainability impact. Now, after about 7 years, the government is a strategic partner, and donates about 10% of our annual budget.

Ashoka: What advice do you have to persuade others to put this effort into recovering excess food?

J.F.: It just makes economic sense. Only one-third of the needs of shelters is supplied through the food banks, they need other initiatives to source food to cover their needs. We are only distributing 500,000 meals every year the potential is much greater.

Ashoka: You have become very involved in educating the young about the importance of healthy diet and how to prepare good nourishing food.

J.F.: We decided that the way to change people’s eating habits was to get the youngsters involved and excited. Through them, the parents could be persuaded to change what they were supplying for their families.

We have two teaching kitchens supplied with mainly donated equipment. One is above the Jean Talon Market in Montreal and the other one, we built in Longueuil, on the other side of the St. Lawrence River. We hold cooking classes for youth who are mainly from inner-city homes. The recipes are tailored to include foods the kids already like to eat.

We noticed that kids eat better when they know more about what they are eating. For example, when we teach them about salt content, they begin to resist very salty foods. At graduation from the program, to encourage them to continue to cook, we give each participant a lunchbox/toolbox with the basic cooking utensils, and a recipe book. To help sustain the program, we generate income (and more food for the shelters) by hosting corporate cooking events in these same training kitchens.

Ashoka: As well, the program now exists in 85 high schools in Quebec. How do you recommend getting schools who have historically given up their ‘Home Ec’ involved?

J.F.: The program now exists in 85 high schools in Quebec, even those who had previously given up their Home Economics programs. The courses are held mainly after school on a weekly basis. A chef is brought into the school and does the training using the old Home Ec facilities. Once a year, there’s a big food fair. The whole school throws a culinary feast with the involvement of a chef, local leaders and celebrities. Just like art, culture, music and sport, food needs to have a place in every school.

Ashoka: Tell me about the summer culinary camps.

J.F.:  In the summer, several 10-day camps are run for inner-city youngsters with a cooking/nutrition program combined with the usual camp sports. Again, chefs and celebrities participate in these camps, incorporating a focus on healthy living. Through the generosity of Marcelle & Jean Coutu Foundation more then 3000 kids from 10 to 15 where invited to the camp over the last 5 years. 

Ashoka: What are the “culinary brigades” you often talk about?

Kids love competition and they watch those popular T.V. cook-offs shows. So we decided to have them form ‘culinary brigades’ to represent their schools and compete against other schools for the provincial Brigades Culinaires championship title. It’s now in 85 High Schools across the province and soon in B.C. next Fall.

Ashoka: How can you have time to evaluate your many programs?

J.F.: The University of Montreal’s Head of Nutrition at EXTENSO Marie Marquis and her students are doing pre and post evaluations of the program which will help us adjust as we gain more experience and show how effective we are at building healthy eating habits amongst teenagers. It is crucial to guide us and know if we are getting the right impact.

Ashoka: What’s next?

J.F.: We have expanding our programs into Mexico. We won a big award there for Food Innovation and Education, competing against programs from the Americas. There is already interest from France. We are in three schools there using recipes developed by local chefs. In France President Francois Hollande recognize the social innovation behind La Tablée’s work and gave us the funding through the social innovation award La France s’engage for the next 3 years to grow the initiative.

In another year, we’ll be ready to scale up and start pilot programs in schools across Canada. The big need is to increase the use of social media to reach the general public. We want to explore ‘crowdfunding’ as a way to establish a constant stream of funding. Foodie communities are aware of our work. If each person gave $5 and we reached 1,000,000 people, we would be able to implement the program all across the country with no limitations.

We are also rethinking the way we implement our food recovery program. We want to go beyond just building relationship and start building best practices and industry standards to make sure it becomes sustainable. By reaching schools across the country we are building a new food culture for the generations to come, more aware of the impact of food in their lives!  

To learn even more about La Tablée des Chefs, visit their website or follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. For more about Ashoka Fellow, Jean-Francois Archambault, check out his profile on

Ashoka Insight

Jean-Francois’s passion for making great food available to everyone, requires vision, strategy and the persuasiveness of a salesperson to convince others to join the movement. 

While his mission is firmly based on economic sustainability, his social vision is driven by concern for others. His wife is a major reason for the success of La Tablée – she shares his values, possesses keen financial acumen, and is a key co-creator of Jean-Francois’ driving vision. The accomplishments of each individual on his team is breathtaking, as are the strengths they bring to the organization. His corporate partners also share his vision.