Published on February 22, 2022
Chef and owner of MilkCrate, Steven Brochu received the Alumni Award of Excellence for being an industry innovator and advocate for mental health
Steven Brochu (Culinary Arts '06) knew by Grade 11 that cooking was his passion. Working in a kitchen that summer, he saw and heard the passion of chefs, and was immediately drawn in.
“I wanted to be that excited about a mushroom!” Steven says.
This led him to NAIT’s Culinary Arts program, and eventually to becoming a restaurateur.
Steven worked as a chef at a restaurant in downtown Edmonton for over a decade before venturing out to start his own café, MilkCrate (four of his staff are NAIT grads like him).
It would not be the only thing that he would start, however. Today, in addition to being a hospitality industry entrepreneur who has found his way through the pandemic, he’s one of the profession’s champions of an issue that long preceded the pandemic: mental health in the restaurant business.
Persevering through COVID-19
Shortly after Steven set up MilkCrate, downtown Edmonton – along with the rest of the world – was hit by a pandemic.
“We had to make many pivots to diversify the revenue stream. More online and takeout orders than planned,” says Steven. “We’ve built in a survival mentality. We’re still here thanks to our landlords, community, staff and guests.”
Ingenuity played a part as well. The need to diversify also led to the creation of MilkCrate’s popular virtual cooking classes. Steven started by broadcasting on his iPhone, not expecting the virtual classes to gain the momentum they did so quickly.
“We’ve found it’s great for companies and businesses, or for anyone who wants to learn,” he says.
Many students are from Edmonton, but some have come from abroad, including Germany and the United States.
The strain on the food service industry
While the pandemic has made business tough for entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry, it has also challenged the well-being of all the individuals who work in it. The toll taken on mental health has perhaps never been clearer. That’s something Steven was keen to address.
Shift work, limited access to mental health training and resources, and the lack of an HR department in most restaurants all contribute to the burnout that is all too common in the food and hospitality business.
“In our industry, mental health awareness and meaningful change to support mental health can be slow-moving,” says Steven. He wanted to create positive, meaningful change. This led him to take a mental health first aid course for managers. Soon after, he started MilkCrate Listens, an online mental health initiative.
“After taking the course, I wanted to help,” says Steven.
MilkCrate Listens encourages conversations about mental health within the industry. Steven and his staff take anonymous questions from food service employees online and then get answers from industry leaders and mental health professionals, posting these as well.
The initiative is about fulfilling a need that’s going unaddressed in an industry at a time when it needs it most. It’s also about making sure that people can focus on the positive aspects of the industry that drew Steven to it to begin with, and that have kept him committed to making it better for everyone involved.
Alumni Award of Excellence
Steven Brochu received the Alumni Award of Excellence for his achievements in the culinary field and leadership in mental health awareness in the food and hospitality industry. This award recognizes the significant contributions made in recent years by NAIT alumni to their profession or community.