Trevor Kearns was at the peak of his career. After studying culinary arts at DIT, he worked at several high-end Dublin hotels including The Clarence, The Westbury and The Merrion Hotel. He was even the head chef at Carlton House for the hotel’s grand opening in 2006.
Just when he had the culinary world at his feet, Trevor decided to give it all up to work at the Sophia Housing Association. At the time, the homeless charity was beginning to set up their kitchen on Sean McDermott Street and Kearns decided to jump at the opportunity to try something new.
While many would view his decision as reckless, Kearns knew that he wanted a new challenge.
‘’The hours were much better,’’ he explains. “I was interested in trying different food and working with different clientele. At the time, hospitals and homeless charities had a bad name when it came to food. I thought that could be changed. There was no reason why you couldn’t use cheaper produce but still create nutritional, tasty food for people that wouldn’t normally have access to it. I wanted a different sort of challenge.’’
12 years ago, food in homeless organisations was usually pre-prepared, lacking in flavour and devoid of much nutritional value. That’s where Kearns decided to change things.
At Sophia, Kearns preaches the importance of a balanced and varied diet. Everything at the project is made using fresh ingredients, from the wholesome loaves of breads to the delicious soups that you can often smell wafting through the coffee shop.
‘’When I started here, my background was in five-star hotels. Because of that, I didn’t think there was any reason why everything couldn’t be bought in raw. Yes, we didn’t have the budget but we did have the skill set.’’
Kearns quickly banned frozen pre-prepared food, instead opting for fresh produce that is cheaper and healthier in the long run.
In the restaurant industry, food waste equals loss of profit. Kearns brought his keen financial eye to his work at Sophia. All of the food he prepares comes from FoodCloud, a partner organisation of the EU’s Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD).
The premise of FoodCloud is simple; they take perfectly good food that is earmarked for landfill and re-share it with the community. By using this innovative approach, Kearns has managed to cut food costs by 50pc which allows his team to invest more money back into the association.
‘’On the back of that, we were able to add in more food options - from breakfast leading into lunch and then some after-school clubs - without increasing our costs.’’
It’s clear Kearns relishes the ‘’Ready, Steady, Cook’’ challenge of receiving different ingredients every week. While working in hotels, he cooked according to the season. Today, he cooks according to what’s on offer.
Kearns is a firm believer in passing on his skills. He runs training for up and coming chefs as part of community employment schemes.
‘’We use the coffee shop as a training unit,’’ he explains. ‘’Staff come in with no skill set. Within two years, we train them up to level five. Using my contacts in the industry, I try to get them placements in catering units or hotels so they can move on. We have a high success rate.’’
Like most jobs, the work never ends for Kearns. He’s often seen as the Sophia Housing Association outside of his usual shifts, especially during important meals like Christmas dinner. It’s clear that this role is more than a job to him.
‘’Sophia is a lovely company or charity to work for. It’s more like a family. Since I have started, we’ve lost some of the older residents but we’ve also gained a few. It’s constantly changing. Not only are you a chef, but you’re a friend to them. You’re someone that will listen to their problems without actually judging them.’’
Recently, Kearns was given the recognition he deserves when he was announced as an ‘ordinary hero’ by the ‘’EU Together We Protect’’ campaign. The campaign promotes the people who protect EU citizens through EU funded mechanisms. The campaign celebrates ‘the chain of ordinary heroes’ from all EU countries who work together every day across Europe to protect EU citizens and their environment, safety, health and society.
Speaking about the accolade Kearns is as humble as ever.
‘’It’s not just me; we have a great team here at Sophia. We wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do without them. Together we look after the residents here.’’
Visit the EU Protects homepage and read about other Irish and European local heroes who are working on your behalf to provide a safer, more secure European Union.