By Sean Moon
Whether it’s a prestigious culinary institution such as Ottawa’s Le Cordon Bleu, a respected college program such as those offered by George Brown or Holland College or just the plain old school of hard knocks, earning their cooking chops in restaurant kitchens across the country, chefs have long had a variety of options to help prepare them for a successful foodservice career in Canada.
But since many chefs develop their passion for cooking while still in their early teens, it should come as no surprise that a growing number of culinary and hospitality programs have been popping up on secondary school course menus. Attracting hundreds of students each year, these programs are helping to guide and train Canada’s next generation of culinary professionals for possible careers in the hospitality, hotel or restaurant industries. Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice News recently talked with two teachers who have been integral in developing and growing such programs in Ontario, although many similar programs are also in place at school boards across the country.
Develop skills and gain experience
At Bur Oak Secondary School in Markham, Ontario, teacher and chef Laurie-Ann Fisher has helped run a vibrant and active hospitality and tourism program for a number of years. The course is offered in Grades 10 through 12 and students spend approximately 60 per cent of their time in an industrial kitchen complete with industrial stoves, ovens, mixers, dishwasher and kitchen tools.
“Students in the program are able to participate in practical experiences and scenarios in a number of ways,” says Fisher. “Program activities include supplying many of the school events with catering such as school meetings, awards breakfast and Thanksgiving luncheon for students who are new to Canada. These experiences include both the preparation and serving of food. In addition, students operate a very popular lunch bistro for school staff as well as students in the program.”
The bistro is organized by the Grade 12 class. Working in groups of four, the students develop a menu and supply recipes for the rest of the student chefs. They create categorized shopping lists, comment cards and wait staff order forms for the bistro. On the day of the bistro, the classroom transforms into an intimate dining room complete with tablecloths and music, and is lit only by lamps and battery operated tea lights.
“The program has been well received by students and staff,” says Fisher. “The students gain real life experience through events and the bistro’s operation. They have opportunities to work in the front and back of the house as well as participating in inventory, recipe costing and keeping track of finances within the program.”
The staff enjoys the fresh homemade foods at meetings and events and the bistro has gained a steady clientele of teachers who enjoy the quiet space to have a delicious and nutritious lunch with colleagues.
Explore career options
Fisher says many students sign up for the program to learn useful skills, increase their self-sufficiency or to explore a future career path. Others may be interested because they feel they will be able to “eat their assignments” or because they “saw the action in the kitchens.”
Many students find a place for themselves within the program outside of classroom hours. They will volunteer during their lunch, stay after school to help cater events, or participate in showcasing the program to the community on the school’s Grade 8 and Parent-Teacher nights.
The graduating class of 2015 included 20 hospitality and tourism students, and eight of them continued with a post-secondary pathway within the industry.
“It is very rewarding when you see a student find success within the program and realize that they are the right person for the industry and can excel within this sector,” says Fisher. “It is gratifying for students to have teachers eat their food and give constructive and positive feedback to the students.”
Meets diverse needs
Fisher says the challenging part of teaching the program is providing an enriching curriculum for all students who have a wide variety of abilities and skills and to enable each student to excel. Many students are competent in making all of the mother sauces, have excellent knife skills, can cost recipes, plan events, and can direct a team while multi-tasking. However, there are other students who are still developing a work ethic and who cannot move beyond the skills of making a stir-fry. In addition, there are students with special learning needs, as well as many English language learners, further emphasizing the need to provide an inclusive program which focuses on individual student growth.
“Keeping everyone busy, learning, working safely and helping each student to feel a sense of accomplishment every day is a large part of my daily focus,” says Fisher. “It is very rewarding for me as a chef, who has worked in the industry for over 30 years, to be able to share my passion and get some students hooked on the hospitality pathway. Whether they choose hospitality and tourism as their career following high school or continue to apply these skills in their daily lives, my students are able to learn lifelong applicable skills in cooking, time management, team-work and multitasking.”
Teach multiple disciplines
Jeff Knott is a teacher at St. Augustine Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, where the hospitality program was started by the principal and the technology department head after witnessing the success of similar programs at other schools. The St. Augustine hospitality and tourism course is offered in Grades 10, 11 and 12 either at the college level or workplace level. The program is structured so that certain key basics such as safety and sanitation, knife skills, pastry and soups and stocks are repeated throughout the levels.
“The thought behind the structure of the course was that if I have the student in Grade 10 I can teach him or her the very basic methods and terminology. They become comfortable in an industrial kitchen environment and learn to use the common and basic equipment in the kitchen.”
The Grade 12 class, the only one with a pre-requisite of Grades 10 and 11, is where Knott runs a bistro called The Falcon’s Nest within the school. It is open every Friday for teachers to have lunch.
“We create a menu in class on Monday morning that consists of four different items, with one item being vegetarian. It gives the students a chance to be creative and use their cultural backgrounds. I send that menu to all the teachers via e-mail and they respond with their menu choice. We then use the rest of the week for preparation and service. It gives the student a real-life restaurant experience, being responsible for a station in the kitchen from start to finish. We also have a group that runs the dining room, collecting money, running food and clearing tables.”
Knott says the program has been very well received inside and outside the school. The addition of the bistro has brought teachers together, while an increasing number of students have been asking to be part of the program in some way. Last year, they hosted a Grade 7 and 8 cooking class from St. Monica’s Elementary school supported by Peel Health. In addition, the local community has supported the program through barbecues and other community events held at the school.
Provides career insights
The program at St. Augustine gives students insight into a variety of careers. Knott says the reason the program is called “Hospitality and Tourism” is to leave the door open to teach a broad-based curriculum.
“I not only teach cooking; I give them a glimpse and basic knowledge of what it would be like to work in various positions in the hospitality industry. I view myself as the assistant to the guidance counselor for hospitality. I give the students the information they need to decide what avenue in industry they want to take, if any.”
The program also allows those students who want to be chefs to acquire the basic skills, terminology and knowledge to give them a head start on the college path.
“Imagine being a cooking instructor at Humber or George Brown and you get a student that has already had three semesters of basic training by a professional chef,” says Knott.
Cater school events
Catering is also a large part of Knott’s program, where the students can supply food and service for any events that are hosted at the school, allowing people to see what the students can accomplish. Knott says there have even been events or meetings brought to St. Augustine because someone that organized the event has already attended an event hosted by the school.
Knott says that while the program has received much needed support from the school administration and from the local restaurant community by way of co-op placements, he would like to see a relationship develop between Restaurants Canada members and hospitality programs all over Canada.
“I have found that not a lot of people are aware of the programs that are running at the high school level. The more awareness we can generate, the more support I know we will find.”
Sean Moon is the Managing Editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News magazine.