Taking the Heat in the Kitchen

A talented chef/coordinator and a new culinary arts graduate share their insights and experiences within the creative and fast-paced culinary industry.

By Julia Poole

What makes a good chef? A passion for cooking, artistic ability, lots of focus, willingness to work long hours and eagerness to learn. Trevor Bailey – the co-operative educational coordinator for the hospitality department at Red River College – recommends that students fresh out of culinary school work under a talented head chef at a good restaurant for three or four years to further develop the skills they learned in culinary school. Trevor does not recommend that people acquire head chef positions immediately upon graduating. In culinary school, regardless of how much previous cooking experience they have, students are taught everything from scratch. Students are taught the ‘language’ of cooking. Trevor says, “They learn introductory, advanced and specialty culinary skills which are designed to prepare students to meet the challenges of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding hospitality industry.” Students learn lab work and theory from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon (like a full time job). “Red River College [supplies] the entire industry with quality trained students,” Trevor says.

Trevor notes that regardless of how many years you have spent in the culiBy
Julia Poolenary industry without training, culinary school will give you new habits, sharpen your rough edges, and give you opportunities to learn new things. An apprenticeship is a two year supervised work program comprised of 5,400 hours of on the job training. Students spend three months of each year in the classroom learning culinary theory. An apprenticeship is a good starting point for chefs who have worked in the industry but have no formal training. The two year culinary program is good for people who are just starting out. Either path can lead to a successful career. The culinary industry used to be a male-dominated profession (a decade and a half ago, enrollment in culinary school consisted of only 10% women) but enrollment has shifted in the last few years. The current enrollment in culinary arts features 40% women and 60% men. Baking has a higher ratio of women than men: 70% to 30%.

Trevor says that even the best chefs are continuously learning, improving their skills, and staying on top of trends. A good meal has become a source of entertainment. “It’s not dinner and a movie anymore.” The food itself – from its preparation to its presentation to the customer’s enjoyment – is as much a form of entertainment as the party you attend afterwards. He says that tapas are trendy right now in restaurants. Agri-chefs are also currently trendy. These chefs grow their own vegetables – like baby squash – and include them in their dishes. Customers’ meals are prepared with ingredients that come directly from their chef’s garden. Young chefs are also looking to classic French cooking and to the work of chefs such as Gordon Ramsey, Jamie Oliver and Sophie Dahl.

Students in the two year culinary program at Red River College learn theory and practice in their fall and winter terms and spend their summers working in co-op placements. Trevor has trained eleven different apprentices who now work in New York City, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and in the Caribbean. He says that 98% of students get hired straight out of school. A chef working in a small upscale restaurant can earn more than $40,000 a year. A head chef in a hotel can earn more than $65,000, but those chefs have more responsibilities and more executive duties. They have also spent more time in the industry than recent graduates.

Red River College’s program teaches nutrition in addition to cooking. Trevor Bailey previously worked with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and cooked healthy meals for ballerinas, teaching them proper nutrition that accommodated their caloric needs. He treated them like the professionally trained athletes they are so that their bodies were healthy. He also taught them how to cook nutritious meals for themselves so they could maintain their bodies after they left the RWB residence and moved into professional dance careers. After working at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Trevor brought his talent as an executive chef to the Hilton Suite hotel and was vice president of food services for Canad Inns across Canada and the United States. He had more than twenty years of experience in the culinary industry when he took his current position as co-operative educational coordinator at Red River College.

As the liaison for the culinary program, Trevor places his students in co-ops and provides information to others about the culinary industry. In September 2012 Red River College’s culinary arts program will move downtown to its own facility. They will offer hospitality and tourism management, professional baking, and culinary arts. The baking and culinary arts programs both have at least a one year waiting list.

Chefs now want to be seen instead of remaining in the background. They are fit, trim, personable and engaging. They want to be with their customers and know that their customers are satisfied. In the cooking industry, a professional could work 10 to 15 hours a day, but there is a lot of room for growth and progression as a chef and you can live and work anywhere you want. You can travel anywhere.

Charles showing off his artful culinary skills

Charles LeBlanc just graduated from Red River College’s culinary arts program and aspires to someday be a head chef in a hotel restaurant. He has worked as a line cook at Pineridge Hollow for eight months and is already performing some ‘head chef’ duties: ordering food, organizing functions and weddings, delegating [tasks to other people] and making decisions about food if the kitchen runs out of a required ingredient. He has come a long way from the first time he tried to cook a meal for his family and the chicken he made was completely raw. The training he received at Red River College gave him the tools and knowledge to make the wonderful Christmas dinner he recently prepared for his family. It also gave him the confidence to go into the restaurant business with his uncle. He will act as head chef for a new restaurant called Halo Halo Hut, which will serve savory Filipino dishes and sweet ice cream for dessert!

Charles is self-assured in his abilities as a cook but he would like to improve his skills as a baker. He says that baking and cooking cannot be approached in the same manner. You cannot bake ‘by eye’ the same way that you can when cooking. Baking is an exact science with precise measurements and specific ingredients. Charles laughed when he said he had to learn about baking the hard way after his cakes and other confections didn’t turn out. He would like to eventually upgrade his skills and learn how to be a better baker.

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