Coast to coast: These are Canada’s best cooking schools

Chefs dish on where to prep for a cooking career


 
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Food prep. (ITHQ)

Food prep in the kitchen of a fine-dining restaurant at Montreal’s ITHQ (Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec), where there is also an on-site hotel.

Believe it or not, there are other means to becoming a chef than reality television, Instagram posts, and Kickstarter campaigns. Each year, thousands of amateur cooks enrol in culinary schools stretching from coast to coast in hopes of one day preparing your next unforgettable meal. With help from some chefs who have gone to culinary schools themselves (and hired quite a few graduates since then), here are some of the top kitchens in which to develop your culinary chops.

Atlantic

Food in the Maritimes is unlike anywhere else in Canada, due to the unparalleled access to some of the best seafood in the world. Holland College’s Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown takes advantage of that access at the student-run Lucy Maud Dining Room, with local ingredients such as cod cheeks, clams, mussels, scallops and salmon rounding out the menu. The school’s two-year culinary arts and one-year pastry programs cover hands-on training in the kitchens with additional training in management and presentation. For visitors, there are also full- and half-day cooking “boot camps,” where a chef will take them to shop for ingredients at local markets and bring them back to the school to prepare a locally inspired meal.

Chef Renée Lavallée of the successful Canteen sandwich shop in downtown Dartmouth (who studied at George Brown College in Toronto) also recommends the nearby Nova Scotia Community College’s programs that cover full-time culinary and pastry arts over one to two years, as well as shorter continuing-education courses that include bartending, cider making, cheese making, grape growing, wine pairings, and using tea in cocktails and foods.

Quebec

Chopped Canada judge Antonio Park of Park Restaurant says he’s hired many cooks from Montreal’s ITHQ (Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec) and the Pearson School of Culinary Arts. The former is a largely francophone school with an on-site hotel and two fine-dining restaurants where students work the kitchens. Park adds that the ITHQ has partnerships with Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury hotel chains around the world, such as Fairmont and Relais & Chateâux, where students can do their stages. Meanwhile, Pearson is ITHQ’s more anglophone counterpart (though a few of the programs require fairly good French comprehension) with programs ranging from five months to two years in bread making, pastry, becoming a sommelier, animal butchery, professional cooking and bar and restaurant management. “They both have very strong school systems with good teachers,” he says.

Ontario

Situated in the restaurant capital of Canada, George Brown College’s chef school boasts famous alumni such as Mark McEwan and Jamie Kennedy. (Pretty much every restaurant in the city has a few graduates in the kitchen.) It’s a common stop for visiting Michelin-starred chefs such as Café Boulud’s Daniel Boulud, Momofuku’s David Chang, and Osteria Francescana’s Massimo Bottura, all of whom have dropped by to give talks and cooking demos. The Chefs’ House, the modern and airy campus restaurant run by the students, is where Toronto diners head for an affordable meal prepared under the strictest standards. Aspiring cooks get to experience the rush of Toronto’s biannual Summerlicious and Winterlicious prix-fixe programs, which are both a joy and a pain for the city’s restaurant workers.

The Bonnie Gordon College of Confectionary Arts in Toronto is where aspiring pastry pros flock for lessons on intricately decorated cakes and confections that are essential if you want to open your own patisserie or bake shop (or just impress your Instagram followers).

Outside of Toronto is the equally lauded Stratford Chefs School (Carl Heinrich, winner of the first season of Top Chef Canada and chef-owner of Richmond Station, is a graduate). The school invites chefs from as far away as New Zealand to cook with students at the nearby Prune Restaurant during the winter months. Another benefit of Stratford is that it’s situated in the heart of prime farmland, where some of the country’s best meat and produce are raised, which is ideal for students wanting to learn what it takes to grow the food they’ll be working with every day. Students looking to round out their culinary education should also look at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College, where Canada’s only teaching winery is located, as well as an on-campus brewery for aspiring craft beer makers. In addition to training for both sweet and savoury sides, there are tea and wine sommelier programs, and classes on how to run your own brewery and winery.

Then there’s the Canadian outpost of the 120-year-old international institution, Le Cordon Bleu, in Ottawa. Its global campuses in burgeoning culinary destinations such as Peru, New Zealand and Malaysia, as well as classic food meccas such as Paris, Thailand and Mexico, mean students can go pretty much anywhere for their placements and work at the campus’s on-site restaurants or the luxury resorts and hotels the school partners with. For a well-rounded education, there’s the intensive Grand Diplôme program that combines both savoury and pastry sides (they’re also offered as separate programs), from rudimentary techniques and terminology to advanced plating and the mastery of sugar sculptures. While the school’s Signatures Restaurant is no longer student-run, there are many more opportunities locally and abroad to get restaurant training.

The Prairies

Look westward for one of the top culinary schools in Canada. Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Polytechnic has a professional cooking program with a dedicated charcuterie lab in which to learn the art of making bacon and sausages, as well as the proper handling of meat. The meat produced from the lab is served at the school’s Highwood fine-dining restaurant, as well as the grab-and-go Market at the Culinary Campus in downtown Calgary. Well-known alumni include chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, owners of one of the country’s best and busiest restaurants, Charcut. (Naturally, DeSousa says SAIT is her first choice for culinary schools in the country.) SAIT’s Edmonton counterpart, NAIT, also offers a wide range of courses that cover aspects of running a kitchen that many aspiring cooks don’t think of, such as knife skills, menu costs, law in the hospitality industry, and even more current trends, such as vegan desserts and “artisanal pizza.”

Open only to Manitoba residents due to high demand, Red River College’s two-year culinary diploma program encompasses courses such as first aid, fire safety, inventory management, cooking with Canadian ingredients, and human resources, in addition to the basic skills required to be a garde manger, or pastry cook. (There’s also a one-year professional baking program.) Students run the campus restaurant, Jane’s, and a public cafeteria, as part of the practicum.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s two-year culinary arts diploma is a 2013 addition to the school’s curriculum, incorporating fundamentals with more unique courses on Aboriginal foods and food trends. Certificate programs on meat processing (making sausage and cured meats), institutional cooking (hospitals, cafeterias, hotels) and meat cutting (for working at processing plants) are also on the program list.

British Columbia

With access to the Pacific and the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia is a great place to start a career in cooking. Founded in 1996, the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver has a one-year combined culinary and baking program that also includes topics such as cheese, nutrition and dietary restrictions, wine, plating, and butchery. The school has also partnered with Ocean Wise, the seafood conservation program set up by the Vancouver Aquarium, to promote sustainable consumption in two student-run eateries, Bistro 101 and Bakery 101.

Another Vancouver spot to get a combined culinary and pastry diploma is the Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver. Recommended by chef Ned Bell of Yew Seafood and Bar at the Four Seasons Vancouver (“Solid curriculum, rock-solid instructors,” he says), the school has a 15-week culinary component that covers topics such as soups and stocks, cooking farm-to-table, seafood, grains and farming. Another 15 weeks are spent on chocolate, sugar art, breads, cakes and gluten-free baking. In lieu of a student-run restaurant, the third part of the diploma program is 480 hours of an unpaid internship (called a stage) at a professional kitchen outside of the school. (Bell hired five cooks who did their placement at the hotel in the last three years.) Students also work on two farm plots just outside the city and use what they grow to provide meals to local school kids as part of the Richmond Schoolyard Society, which was founded by instructor Ian Lai to teach children where their food comes from.

The North

Canada’s territories often get neglected when it comes to food, even though many of the ingredients that chefs salivate over—caribou, morels, cloudberries—are found in the Arctic. Still, with issues of food security and exorbitant food costs, it’s easy to see why the region isn’t as rife with culinary schools. Yukon College, however, does have an eight-month culinary arts program that teaches students the requisites to surviving their first years as cooks. Students also train at the Hilltop Bistro and prepare meals at the campus cafeteria.

There’s more to cooking than being a rock star

The end game isn’t always about getting on critics’ Top 10 lists or hanging out with Anthony Bourdain.

“That’s not the only part of food service. There’s industrial cooking and institutional cooking, less interesting positions at cafeterias and hospitals,” says Michael Olson, a culinary instructor at Niagara College and a veteran chef of 25 years. “These positions get overlooked because they’re not sexy, but people make a living doing it, are well paid, and work 40 hours a week with benefits. Whereas the norm at a lot of the ‘cool’ restaurants is that you’re working more than most in a typical week, have no overtime, benefits, vacation, things that we set our standard of living to.”

Olson wants prospective students to realize that food preparation takes many forms, and it’s not always the rock ’n’ roll, burnout life that gets covered in the press. “I look at cooking school as a base for your career path. There are so many others that are at a different pace,” he says. “Hotels and those less sexy jobs tend to have more of a structure, so many people are choosing that route in the last couple of years, because working until 2 a.m. in crap conditions isn’t easy. You might have a lot of followers on Instagram, but it’s not the only path in food.”

What I look for when I’m hiring cooks

“Young kids graduate from school and think they’re automatically chefs, so you have to break them down and mould them again,” says Chopped Canada judge and chef Antonio Park of Park Restaurant in Montreal. Park himself spent four years at the now-defunct Michiba culinary school in Tokyo, but when he’s looking at a resumé, he’s looking more for commitment than a stage at Noma.

“It helps to go to culinary school, but will I specifically hire someone because of that? No, everyone should get a chance to cook, whether they went to school for it or not. I hire for consistency. The turn-off is working one month at this place, one month at that place, seven places in three years. It makes me think you’ll work for me for three months and then leave.”


 
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