Canadian culinary

Canadian culinary progress promises a bright future

By Tom Nightingale

After such a damaging and painful two years, how does the Canadian culinary and restaurant industry keep young and talented chefs motivated and keen to build a career in the industry?

That just might be the million-dollar question amid the high-profile and lingering talk of a labour crisis and the magnified challenges of kitchen work that have been thrust sharply under the spotlight since the pandemic kicked in with full force in March 2020.

“We were probably the hardest-hit industry by this pandemic,” Doug Overes, the chair of the board of the Culinary Federation, tells RestoBiz. “We have seen a massive exodus of cooks out of the industry – particularly line cooks, prep cooks, and those sorts of workers – to go into other industries that are more stable in terms of hours and guaranteed pay.”

The restaurant industry, of course, is constantly evolving and innovating, but rarely has the need to balance the experience and accomplishments of what one might term “the old guard” with the fresh ideas and technological fluency of younger generations been more acutely felt than in 2022.

The future is now, but how can Canadian foodservice ensure it lays the pathway for a sustained step forward?

That question is often on Overes’ mind in his day job, where he is the chair of the School of Culinary Arts at Lethbridge College in southern Alberta. Overes has been instructing at the college for the past 25 years after graduating himself from the school’s Professional Cooking program back in 1987. He has been in his role of chair for eight years, although he still also teaches. With his various roles at Lethbridge and the Culinary Federation, Overes has a foot in both camps, as he puts it. “I have a very good relationship with the old guard of the Federation, but I also identify with and get along well with the new up-and-coming young chefs,” he says.

Educating the next generation of chef talent is a profession of passion. So, too, is culinary and kitchen employment itself – there is some work to be done, though, to keep that flame burning after the last two years.

Overes notes that Lethbridge’s culinary school caters to a wide range of demographics, with great variations in age, gender, experience, race, and social background. There is “a massive waitlist” made up of international students in Canada on visas, as well as students right out of high school and mature students there to take on an apprenticeship and get extra training. “It’s a very diverse industry and I don’t expect it’s ever not going to be,” Overes says.

Unfortunately, the toll of the pandemic has been clear in the enrolment numbers, which have taken “quite a hit” compared to pre-pandemic. The pandemic is going to affect so much for years to come, and Overes admits it’s going to take “a lot of work” to try and motivate people to come back into the industry.

However, as the pandemic hopefully fades away, the industry veteran spies “a huge opportunity” to push the envelope on attracting foreign workers and tap into the existing domestic pool to keep Canadian culinary stacked with talent.

A modern Federation for modern times

One of the conversations the Culinary Federation has been having, continues Overes, is about how to pinpoint talented individuals, get them involved in an association or a formal cooking program, and nurture them along the way.

Certainly, the Federation has made bolstering foodservice’s appeal as a career industry one of its key priorities over the years.

Overes has been with the Federation since the early 1990s in various roles, from local branch secretary to president to Western Regional VP and now chair of the board, earning a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work. In that time, as with his quarter-century at Lethbridge, he has seen not only the day-to-day inner workings of a restaurant kitchen evolve drastically, in some ways almost unrecognizably, but also the discourse within and around foodservice.

Overes speaks frankly and forthrightly about that evolution.

“It’s sad to admit but in the past, the industry has been abusive in some ways, not just physically but mentally, emotionally, psychologically. Even just 15-20 years ago, it was a different era. Many young chefs were wary of the old guard, of their methods, of their management; there was very little relationship-building.” He adds that a lot of chefs used to opine that a chef was never a true chef unless they had worked at a hotel or restaurant. “It was all about your pedigree, your status.”

That kind of mentality has changed immensely.

As the industry and the Culinary Federation’s work within it evolved, there was more invested in promoting friendly competition and opening up opportunities to a wider range of chefs, recognizing the increased diversity of the industry’s workforce. Gradually, the Federation’s focus shifted further towards education, inclusion, and relationship-building across the industry overall, particularly for the “new guard” of younger chefs. These days, the Federation’s board is also made up of numerous independent members, whose valuable perspectives Overes describes as “a breath of fresh air”.

Today, Overes, who has been proud “ever since I signed my first membership document”, says he loves the direction the Federation has taken. “I’m even more proud now, I really am. Our ‘A Chef Wears Many Hats’ initiative is a great example. Gone are the days of the old guy wearing the big white hat and the necktie and the gleaming whites; cooks and chefs come in all forms now, in every sense, and it’s refreshing as an older guy to see that.”

“Young people and professionals have so much energy and enthusiasm and we need to tap into that enthusiasm and diversity in the trade.”

Pushing the positives

Ultimately, while there is no magic formula, attracting and retaining young chef talent boils down to providing easily accessible channels of entry, offering younger generations what they want from foodservice work in the post-pandemic world, and ensuring the industry’s image is not only rehabilitated but enhanced.

Thankfully, says Overes, the conditions for success are there, even with the setback of the pandemic. “Young chefs have so much more at their disposal now, the networking tools and educational tools. It’s incredible and it’s exciting and I’m glad that we as an industry have embraced this trajectory. There are opportunities everywhere, as well as increased awareness of those opportunities.”

Traditionally, in a country as large and expansive as Canada, mobility has been a big challenge that foodservice, along with many other industries, has had to overcome. But the proliferation of digital tools has meant made the world far smaller in metaphorical terms. Social media and other digital and visual platforms, notes Overes, allow the industry to be connected “coast to coast, across five time zones”. That has given the culinary industry a tremendous foundation on which to build. “Creating a platform where chefs can connect and innovate on their own time in their own geography but in collaboration with somebody on the opposite side of the country is a great thing.”

There are still obstacles to overcome, of course.

While there has been a far greater discussion around mental health in the kitchen in recent years, magnified by COVID-19’s impact, Overes stresses that the industry must continue to bolster the confidence and mental health of young students and cooks. “It’s hard for the industry on the ground level to do that amid the hectic day-to-day, so as a Federation we need to ensure we are stepping up,” he says.

Then there are the inherent issues of variance affecting the industry. While, say, an electrician in Alberta may be little different in practice from someone in the same trade in Toronto, foodservice has so many divergences that it is hard to approach single-mindedly. A cook at a fine-dining restaurant will likely be on significantly different pay and potentially in very different conditions than a line cook at a pizza parlour, and there are also geographical divides when it comes to the balance between remuneration and cost of living. “Those gaps will be difficult to bridge as long as I’m alive,” concedes Overes.

But, in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to ensuring Canadian culinary and foodservice holds the recognition and reputation it deserves, things are heading in the right direction.

“As both a Federation and a college culinary department, I and we have an obligation to help raise that profile and appreciation,” Overes concludes. “We have a lot of work ahead of us to extol the virtues of the cooking industry. It is a gruelling industry with its own shortcomings and, really, you have to be either passionate or crazy – on some days, it alternates between the two!

“But we really need to push the positives. It’s a very social industry, it’s a very creative industry, and it can be a very rewarding industry. That’s the heart of it all.”