Yes Chef: A Kinder, Gentler, Prettier Chef School

chefschoolThere’s an ongoing joke in the restaurant biz, where executive chefs are regularly asked – who cooks the food when you’re not there? The answer is always given with a smirk – the same people who cook the food when I am there.

Presumably most foodies are wise enough to know that the product emerging from restaurant kitchens is the work of an entire team or brigade of staff, not just one person. Brigades can range in size from two or three people in small, family-run restaurants to hundreds of staff in large hotels. From dishwashers to sous chefs, sauciers to pastry chefs, the average restaurant runs on the concerted effort of many people, and that’s the just the staff at back of house.

Which means now more than ever that a career in just about any aspect of the culinary arts is a hot commodity. Canada’s hospitality sector currently employs over 1.7 million people and will require another 300,000 professionals by 2015 to remain competitive. Sure, some people have a natural talent for cooking, but for most, the key to landing jobs in the top restaurants is more easily attained through proper training.

In Toronto, that means the George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.

In fact, so many students are enrolling in the Centre’s Chef School and hospitality programs that the school is expanding to accommodate the growing numbers. With a current enrolment of over 2400 full-time students and 7000 part-time students, the school has started building renovations that will allow an expanded student body of 3000 full-time students upon completion.

The expansion includes moving onsite training restaurant Siegfried’s to a front and centre, street level location in the former Pasquale Brothers building at 215 King Street East. While upper floors of this building have been converted to classrooms and are already in use, the restaurant is set for a September opening. Currently one of the best-kept dining secrets in the city (a 4-course lunch is $15, dinner $30), Siegfried’s tends to attract an older clientèle. Dean John Walker hopes the modern, more visible and accessible location will attract food lovers of all stripes. He explains that the goal is to model the school to some degree after the James Beard house in New York City, to produce events that will include not just staff and students but members of the public, as well as some of the city’s well-known chefs, many of whom were formerly students here. His goal, he admits, is for the Chef’s School to be seen as a cultural food centre for Toronto.

As I tour the renovated portions of the school with Yes Chef! Campaign manager Linda Dunn, I am struck by how modernized everything is. When I was a student here some thirteen years ago, the building was serviceable and clean, but not necessarily pretty. Labs were jokingly referred to as dungeons and were designed to get the job done, not be the cause of inspiration. Now labs and demo classrooms are outfitted with high-end finishes, sparkling mosaic tiles and gleaming woods. The large quantity kitchen, where I had my very first class, is now unrecognizable to me, only the layout of the room and the huge steam pots along one wall are familiar.

These renovations speak not just to the need for physical upgrades to the space but of a whole change in attitude in how students are trained. Even a decade ago, the average culinary arts student was straight out of high school (most courses required only grade 10) and was destined for a career in a large, probably hierarchically-based brigade in a large restaurant or hotel. Instructors taught with a good deal of intimidation and even more yelling. Friends are often horrified when I tell them cooking school wasn’t that far off from what they see on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. For generations that’s how restaurants were run.

Dean Walker explains that mature students now make up 60% of the average student body population and the previous teaching methods are no longer effective. Most students start their programs with a work ethic already instilled, and the school now has a better understanding of student needs. What was formerly an industry based on ego and perfectionism is now more balanced and more team-centred. Yes, some students do arrive expecting to become a celebrity chef with little effort, but the course load and sheer physicality of the work quickly brings them back to reality. He points out that the industry wants chefs who are capable of working as a team and the goal of the school is to prepare the students to be workplace ready. Creating a dynamic learning experience seems to be a better route toward that goal than the old methods of yelling and humiliation.

Another way the school accommodates the different goals of their students is in expanding their course offerings. While the basis of the programs offered have traditionally been strongly rooted in classic French cuisine, the school now offers a post-graduate diploma in Indian Cuisine, and Continuing Education courses include Asian Cuisine, Tea Appreciation and yes, even a Vegetarian Cuisine Certificate – to demonstrate how progressive this is, I once had an instructor who threatened to fail any student who admitted to being a vegetarian. Now, a culturally-diverse city dictates a culturally-diverse curriculum that continually expands to serve the interests of the students.

The planned expansion and redesign of the current site at 300 Adelaide Street East is extensive. An 18,000 square foot addition will include three state-of-the-art student kitchen labs, two of which will be at street level, with glass fronts and open kitchens. The existing 20,000 square foot building will include renovations to eight cooking and pastry labs; a unique commercial foods lab supporting a new commercial services program; a chocolate lab to support the new Advanced Pastry and Chocolate program; and a student learning resource centre.

All of these improvements come at a price however. The $20,000,000 investment is being funded in part by the province and by George Brown College. The Yes Chef! campaign aims to raise $5,000,000, a full quarter of the total needed, through community fundraising and private donations. Many industry leaders have already pledged their support for the Yes Chef! Campaign, but more help is needed, both from members of the hospitality industry and community members. Information on how to make a donation can be found on the Yes Chef! Campaign website.

If the question of who cooks your dinner when the chef’s not there is at all worrisome, then the folks at the George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts would like you to “step up to the plate” and help ensure that the person flipping your steak is a George Brown Chef School graduate.