Teaching the tricks to performing culinary magic

Blame it on the punk appeal of chef Anthony Bourdain, the Joey Ramone of kitchen sensibilities; or Bill Buford’s book Heat on working inside the pecking order of Italian-cuisine divo Mario Batali’s kitchen; or even the amusingly stilted English overdubs on the original Japanese Iron Chefseries.

The mini media empire of celebrity chefs, cooking shows and cookbooks has inevitably changed the expectations of what is possible for students entering culinary school.

Long gone, say the instructors, are the days of college cooking programs that simply focused on knife skills and Julia Child-type French recipes.

Now it’s about taking ingredients from around the world and whipping them up with a wide diversity of increasingly specialized kitchen skills and workplace management. For colleges, it’s also about leading students into the high-pressure culture of contemporary kitchens.

Culinary Olympics

Jeremy Gilligan, 45, went back to school to pursue cooking as a career change. He is now on Niagara College’s Junior Culinary Team Canada, going to the World Culinary Olympics. ( Jodi Taylor/Niagara College)

“On one level, we always stick to what we call classic cooking techniques – but adding to that. Our industry always changes. Technology changes. Trends change. Styles of cooking change,” says Craig Youdale, dean of Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute.

“It’s a huge challenge for culinary schools to try and balance the two, to create someone who has that base knowledge to be able to work anywhere, but at the same time be very aware and knowledgeable about where trends are going and what techniques and technology are available.”

Take radicchio lettuce or Belgian endive. They used to be special ordered from Europe, costing as much as $5 or $6 a head, Mr. Youdale says. “Now I can go to Sobeys and get it.”

The exotic has now become commonplace. Lemongrass or Mexican peppers, once limited to Thai or Mexican restaurants, are now staples for home cooks. It means students can excel with a wider variety of influences.

But there is still a need to master the grunt tasks, while also creating magic with each dish. Niagara College is putting this kind of bend-over-backward kitchen work ethic on display with its participation in global competitions – it won the right to represent Canada in the Culinary World Cup in Luxembourg in 2014 and the American Culinary Classic in Florida last year. It won gold and silver medals in both competitions and is now heading to the World Culinary Olympics in Germany this month. Think Iron Chef, but with national teams.

Yet in practice, culinary education is still largely about the basics and the ability to learn every station in a professional kitchen.

“Regardless of what type of restaurant, that base level is fairly common across the board, whether you’re at the Royal York, Buca or Richmond Station [two Toronto restaurants], you’re always going to need those basic skills to survive,” Mr. Youdale says.

Christine Walker, academic chair of George Brown College’s Chef School in Toronto, says fundamental knife skills are always going to be important. Yet a lot of dialogue takes place between colleges and restaurant owners (as well as hotels, hospitals and other food services businesses) to teach students what the industry is demanding.

“What are the trends coming up in the industry that we need to be making sure our students are knowledgeable in,” she says. “Nutrition is one that a few years ago, we realized we need to put a stronger focus on – still teaching fundamental knife skills, but making sure we’re talking about nutrition. How you can make this healthier, how you can change this recipe.”

Classes have a mix of slow pacing to master skills and fast pacing to learn to work under pressure. “But now it’s much, much bigger. We make sure we talk a lot about sexual harassment and their rights and to make sure that they are informed,” Ms. Walker says.

Work placement in professional kitchens is also key. George Brown’s program puts an emphasis on students broadening their résumés. If they have worked in restaurants, they may need stints working on recipe testing or in hotel kitchens. But what is difficult to teach is the sheer pace of restaurant work.

“A typical day in the summer is arriving at 10 in the morning, start prep, start getting reading and setting up your station for lunch service, which starts at 11:30,” says Robbie Aggarwal, 19, who graduated from Niagara College and is on the school’s cooking competition team. He currently works at Two Sisters Vineyards at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Lunch service generally entails 130 to 160 customers, plus walk-ins.

“So for four hours, you’re just kind of busting out orders. You’re in the zone,” he says.

“Lunch ends at 4, and by then you’re still taking orders. You clean up your station and do any more prep you need for dinner service. At the same time, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re trying to eat something. And then you have zero time for yourself before it hits 5 o’clock, and you already have 20 people at the door for a 200-plus cover service [200 or more expected customers],” Mr. Aggarwal says.

That kind of pace can be learned only on the job. “I think they can’t prepare you for that 200 dinner cover service, or that 14-hour day, because how would they teach that?”

Yet finding a job is relatively easy compared to other fields, says Mr. Youdale at Niagara College. “If you ever want to be gainfully employed, pretty much anywhere you go in the world, being a cook is definitely one of those positions.”

However, “for those who want to excel and move their way up, it’s like any profession. It becomes tougher and tougher the higher you go,” he noted. “They come into the industry, and they want to be like that chef they see on TV. They want to make their own menus, and they want reviewers to come taste their food, and they want to express themselves creatively. I think most chefs look for that.”

The problem is that “it’s not that type of job. You’ve got to pay your dues,” Mr. Youdale says.

College programs and their close connection to restaurants can be key for getting into the profession. “It’s not just about how to cook, it’s also about networking and who you know,” says Jeremy Gilligan, who is 45 and went back to school to pursue cooking as a career change.

Still, it comes down to work ethic. “They always say in our profession, 15 minutes early is 20 minutes late. You’ve got to show up half an hour early to get your station set up. There are a lot of things you don’t get paid for,” Mr. Gilligan says.

“I started out at garde manger [hors d’oeuvres and salads], then entremet [vegetables and sides], then saucier [sauces] for three years. When you get to that point, you’re going to go through all the positions. You can’t say, ‘I want to stay on garde manger,’ because it’s a constant elevation.”

And that’s what culinary programs have in common with celebrity chef media. It’s the ability to do anything in the kitchen, while whipping up minor miracles.