Portrait of Joshna standing at the counter in her kitchen.

Chef-activist Joshna Maharaj is changing how we eat

This Toronto chef is on a mission to make good, healthy food more accessible for everyone

Chef Joshna Maharaj has always been a food activist. But it wasn’t until she heard someone refer to Jamie Oliver as a “chef-activist” that she realized what her real passion was. (Spoiler: it’s changing how we all think about food.)

Fittingly, Maharaj started her career at the The Stop Community Food Centre where she ran the kitchen for several years, turning donated groceries into fulfilling meals for vulnerable communities in the city—and learning about the issues that were keeping people from accessing healthy food, such as income, time constraints and food literacy.

“It became clear to me that our food system was in trouble and, as a chef, I felt it was part of my responsibility to act,” Maharaj says.

Her next stop was the Scarborough Hospital, where she helped rejig meal plans for patients to make them more nutritious and, wherever possible, locally sourced and from scratch. One major challenge? A shrinking hospital food budget, which Maharaj fought to increase while making the most of what was already available. After that, she tackled sustainable food on campus as the executive chef at Ryerson University.

But she hasn’t forgotten about home cooks. A strong advocate for making small changes that can have a big impact, she encourages people to grow their own food with the resources they have available, even if it’s in small quantities, on an urban balcony, in a milk crate. As a resource, she points to the Toronto Community Garden Network, which helps people find opportunities to grow food in dense urban spaces.

Even more importantly, Maharaj says we should all cook homemade food more often, and re-shift our priorities to make time in the kitchen an essential activity in our lives. Though she acknowledges that income is the primary issue that keeps many people from accessing good food, she’s a firm believer that a lack of skill and knowledge around cooking is a close second. She notes that inexpensive and readily available ingredients like rice, beans, onions and carrots are not always used to their full potential.

“People might say that they don’t have time, but we’re talking about your life force here, what keeps you alive. There is actually joy on the other side of time spent in the kitchen. No matter how busy [we are], food is fueling our lives and is about more than filling the tank.”

Overhead shot of a sliced beet chocolate loaf being served with butter and coffee.

Beet & Chocolate Loaf

“This loaf is dense and so flavourful! The spices work really well with the beets, and the spelt flour gives a compelling texture and nuttiness to the final product,” Maharaj says.

Makes 1 loaf

3 medium red beets, or 1 cup prepared beet purée
2 cups spelt flour
4 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp cinnamon
¾ tsp baking soda
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground cardamom
½ tsp salt
½ cup cane sugar
½ cup sunflower oil
2 large eggs
3 tbsp milk
100 g dark chocolate, chopped

1. Wrap each beet in foil; roast in 400°F oven until tender, about 1 hour. Let cool slightly. In food processor, purée until smooth. Measure out 1 cup; reserve any remaining for another use. Set aside.
2. Line 8 x 4 inch loaf pan with parchment paper.
3. In bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves, cardamom and salt.
4. In separate large bowl, whisk together beet purée, sugar, oil, eggs and milk until smooth. Stir in flour mixture, in two batches, until all ingredients have been incorporated and the mixture is homogenous. Stir in chopped chocolate.
5. Scrape batter into pan and even out top. Bake in 350°F oven until top is just set and skewer inserted into the centre comes out with some moist crumbs, about 60 minutes (check at 45). Remove from heat to a cooking rack and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Turn loaf out of pan and let cool completely.

Food and prop styling by Sprig Creative