Peek into the kitchens of some of Ottawa’s best restaurants and you’ll find out they have something in common. Many are home to locally-trained graduates of Algonquin College’s culinary programs, and in some cases, those graduates are running the show.
Over the last 40 years, Algonquin’s School of Hospitality and Tourism (SoHT) has evolved from its modest beginnings to become the most comprehensive and diversified hospitality management, tourism, travel, wellness and culinary training entity in Canada. Algonquin’s culinary program has grown and diversified, yet it continues to provide solid training in classical French culinary fundamentals, while also keeping pace with changing food trends, equipment and industry developments.
Classes are held in the Hospitality Centre, a vibrant space that also includes the popular 150-seat Restaurant International, as well as a retail outlet called Savoir Fare where delicious takeaway meals produced by students are sold to the public. In the school’s labyrinth of classrooms, you’ll discover a busy training facility filled with learners of all ages and backgrounds, including international students from China, India, Korea and Vietnam.
“Some arrive with zero cooking experience whereas others have lots,” says Cory Haskins, an accomplished chef who has been teaching at Algonquin for over a decade and now serves as the Coordinator of Culinary Programs. His fellow instructors are all local experts, ensuring students graduate with the skills, confidence and connections they need to succeed.
The new Farm to Fork class is a good example of the program’s efforts to stay relevant. “Our advisory committee, made up of some of Ottawa’s most accomplished culinary professionals, recommended enhancing our instruction on local foods and sustainability,” explains Cory. “We now have four bee hives on campus and students process the honey. Our horticulture students plant produce for us and we harvest and cook with it, giving students a better sense of what’s local and seasonal.”
At Restaurant International, students gain valuable real-world experience cooking for and serving guests. A timid host becomes an accomplished server by second semester, and touches of creativity start to appear on plates as students gain confidence. It’s worth a visit – the food is delicious and affordable with a lively environment thanks to the students’ enthusiasm.
“I like to say that we want students to become technicians first and get all that under control before they try to get creative,” notes Cory. “There’s usually a tight deadline when you’re working in a commercial kitchen so we try to impart that sense of urgency. That’s not to say there’s no room for creativity – there are fun competitions here in which they can choose to participate.”
Algonquin graduate Chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta, Play and Gezellig fame, sits on the advisory board for the SoHT. “I like contributing to the evolution of the culinary programs and helping keep the curriculum relevant to a new crop of chefs,” he says. “Having a good local culinary training program matters because it brings people to Ottawa who want to cook professionally – creating a base of skilled cooks for restaurants instead of trying to woo people from other cities.”
Volunteer shifts at numerous local charity events add to students’ experience and networking. “Most graduates have no problem finding jobs,” confirms Cory. “It helps that Algonquin has so many great connections with area chefs and we teach more than just cooking skills. Students learn discipline, respect and professionalism too. As instructors, we enjoy a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”
Algonquin culinary graduates share lessons learned
Chef Walid El-Tawel (Fairouz): Be your best, don’t be late, be well groomed, there’s no shame in mistakes.
Chef Claire Tomchishen (Strawberry Blonde bakery): Minimize food waste to keep costs down. At the bakery we use things up in creative ways like leftover coffee in cakes, cake scraps in delicious rum balls.
Resa Solomon St-Lewis (Baccanalle): Teamwork is key – you can only execute a great dish, offer an unparalleled customer experience and manage a kitchen operation with a great team.
Adam Vettorel (North and Navy): I frequently refer back to what I learned about food and labour costs as a percentage of the businesses total sales; these are invaluable lessons.
Kyle Proulx (Le Maçon et La Maison Conroy): If you are truly passionate about cooking then give it your all - don’t skip classes, learn food costing, spend time researching the latest food trends. Be sure to pick the brains of your instructors.