Culinary School is Growing Up

By Gregory Furgala

Craig Youdale remembers his small class at Canadore College, a small school. His two chef professors, recent imports from France and the U.K., were both classically trained, as Youdale would soon be, too. The curriculum was straightforward, with a balance of kitchen time and classroom time, a student-run dining room and lessons spread out over two years. They focused on mastering garde manger, sauce, baking and butchery, and the skills that underpinned each practice.

‘Twenty-five, 30 years ago, we learned how to make sauces and roast a chicken and compose salad and make a dessert, and we haven’t really changed that,” says Youdale. Only now, there’s just so much more.

Youdale is the dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. While fundamental cooking skills — searing, roasting, poaching and other familiar techniques — remain as important as ever, modern culinary school syllabi have dropped the gallocentrism for an intercontinental outlook. New technology has foisted itself on young cooks and schools have evolved past just teaching skills in the kitchen and moved into management, nutrition and entrepreneurship training, amongst other disciplines. Although still thought of as a trade, cooking has developed into an interdisciplinary profession with a global focus, demanding new skills and proficiencies from the young chefs entering into it. Today’s culinary schools have had to refashion themselves to keep up.

Throwing Out the Book

At Niagara, keeping up means teaching students how to use sous vide machines and combi-ovens alongside Wüsthofs and All-Clads, and how to prepare Escoffier’s five mother sauces alongside pho stock. Michael Allemeier, certified master chef and professor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, has had a similar experience as Youdale, and recognizes it as a product of broader social and technological shifts.

“The industry has gone to a contemporary, regional, fresher, seasonal Instagram-driven type of cuisine, and it’s evolved quite considerably,” says Allemeier. “When I did my apprenticeship, we cooked out of our Hering’s Dictionaries. Kids today don’t even know Hering’s Dictionary. You can’t even find Hering’s Dictionary!”

Allemeier isn’t lamenting the development, but rather explaining how the industry’s approach to contemporary dining has changed culinary schools. The new tools, availability of exotic ingredients and constant exposure to food media have changed the restaurants we eat at and have changed young cooks’ training as well. Cooking used to be French and regimented. The protein was placed over the sauce, and the vegetables and starch were placed alongside. Take a look at popular Instagram accounts queuing up food porn and it’s easy to see how that structure fell out of favour. It’s also where young chefs are taking their cues from.

“There’s no ceiling anymore, and before there was a ceiling,” says Allemeier. “You can be as creative as you want. But if it’s not amazing and people don’t get it, you’re going to be bankrupt and out of business, so we have to temper it with a bit of common sense.”

That common sense, unfortunately, is occasionally lacking. Allemeier says he’s dealt with cooks who are experts at accessory skills like sous vide cooking, but are lost when asked to sear and roast a piece of meat. In his view, their education — whether it’s been from culinary school or just on-the-job training — has failed them. “I think of it as having all the decorations for the tree,” says Allemeier, “but you need a tree first!”

More Than Restaurants

With secondary skills and the basics in hand, though, students are positioned to tackle a broader range of in-demand jobs in foodservice, or continue pursuing their education. Rudi Fischbacher, the acting dean of the School of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism at Humber College, was trained in classic techniques in his youth like Youdale and Allemeier. More recently, he’s been expanding Humber’s curriculum in response to students worried about the workload, pay and work-life balance.

“Some do it out of passion, but when they see how hard it is physically, it’s a bit of a deterrent. And we don’t want them to see it through rose-coloured glasses, like they’re all going to be the next TV superstar chef,” says Fischbacher. “It’s not going to be that way, but you can make a good living. Looking at the career pathways, you do it through education. Get them a diploma, make sure they get their Red Seal, make sure they get their certified chef de cuisine.”

“There are many other food-related industries,” continues Fischbacher.

Fischbacher stresses this point: there are more options available to cooks than just restaurant kitchens in large urban centres, and education can help. It helps him address their concerns about pay and professional opportunities outside of restaurants. Fischbacher also emphasizes the global transferability of the skill set, and has set up exchanges in Florence, Strasbourg and Taiwan. “It really has become an international trade. It’s really made [cooks] global citizens,” says Fischbacher.

The real sign of Humber’s success, Fischbacher says, is its students. Some of them end up in restaurants, others end up in hotels, retirement homes or with equipment companies. Some pursue nutrition or management positions, while still others end up coming back to Humber to teach part time. That’s the world culinary schools have adapted to, and now, graduates from schools like Humber ply their trade, or something like it, all over the world. “Some are in Dubai, some are in Hong Kong, some are in Hong Kong,” says Fischbacher. “It’s beautiful.”