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Diploma

While I have been out of culinary school for nearly ten months, it was only yesterday I officially graduated at a convocation ceremony held at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall, across the street from Red River College’s new School of Hospitality.

It was quite the experience, complete with cap and gown. I’d not experienced anything like it since graduating from high school well over a decade ago, having passed on the chance to attend my university convocation in 2004.

For me, yesterday’s convocation meant a lot: I’d walked away from a comfortable and, dare I say, promising career with the City of Ottawa; returned to Winnipeg after nearly five years in the nation’s capital, during which time I’d built a life for myself as an independent urbanite; and, all to fulfil a long-buried dream to learn the culinary arts, to become a chef.

 

While the honorific,” chef,” isn’t conferred, but earned after years of toil and dedication, I was proud to cross the stage to receive my Diploma—with honours—and my certification as a Level 1 and 2 cook. Moreover, and forgive me for a bit of boasting, I was especially proud to receive the Gold Medal for Culinary Arts, having achieved the highest GPA in my graduating class, well above the 3.8 threshold for eligibility.

I’d made a promise to myself when I started the program over two years ago that I would give it my very best effort; I’d work harder than I’d ever done in university; I’d apply myself fully and accept nothing short of my own notion of excellence. There were dark days and rough patches, to be sure. I made mistakes, I slipped up; on certain projects and in certain instances, I could have done better. I still relive my lunch practical exam, my evening dining final, my offerings in Patisserie 1 and 2, my efforts at the Skills Manitoba and Canada competitions.

I don’t believe in perfect—in debating, in cooking, in life. Equally, however, I believe in striving for perfection even if it is impossible to achieve it. That’s one of the things I love about cooking: with every cut of the knife, every ingredient added or finessed, every order received and executed, every plate prepared and presented, every day in the kitchen there is the opportunity to strive for the impossible.

Is it a depressing thing to start the day knowing it will end in failure? Not really, not to me. Is it possible, after all, to fail at something when that something is impossible to attain? No, the failure, I think, comes from not trying in the first place.

When I crossed the stage yesterday, amidst feelings of pride and personal accomplishment, I was also filled with gratitude: to my family, my parents especially for their extraordinary and unfailing support. I tried, and succeeded because of them.

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Is it June already?

By my count, I’ve been in Toronto for about 6 weeks now. (With a brief return to Winnipeg, then to Edmonton, squished in there, too.) And yet, at once it seems like only yesterday I was driving cross-country with my bro — and so very long ago we were making the trip. That time has lost all meaning is, I suspect, a byproduct of working in the hospitality industry — my working life now revolving around others’ leisure time.

I’ve had days off before, but this one is the first I truly feel like I can take a breath and relax. I’m moved in, there’s no racing around to do, last-minute errands, things needed to be picked up, and so on. And so, I’m taking the opportunity to catch you up on the past month or so — my first in my new job at Brad Long’s Cafe Belong at the innovative Evergreen Brick Works (what Winnipeg’s Forks Market could have — and should have been).

Sustainable, local and, whenever possible, organic. To me, this best sums up the approach Chef/Owner Brad Long has taken with his eponymous-ish cafe. And it’s an ethos I can get behind. Indeed, what excites me most about my placement at Belong is how the work I do aligns with the values I hold (something that, as time wore on, was lost when I was toiling away in the political trenches in Ottawa). Quite simply, I’m working in an environment that is, well, conscious of the environment. That, to me — and Martha — is a good thing.

For the first few weeks, I spent most of my time in our production kitchen, supporting both the cafe and the catering operation. It was an excellent initiation, as I was able to see and work with virtually all the products we receive from our various local suppliers — from whole pigs to the tiniest of micro greens, live lobsters to the littlest sardines.

More recently, I’ve been brought on line to work the grade manger station. It’s been both a challenge and a thrill. When the weather is nice, our patio and park-like setting make us somewhat of a destination for area residents. On those days, the brunch and lunch services can be quite hectic. Finding my stride amidst the chaos has tested my patience, my skills, my nerve, and my knees. I’m managing. In the process, though, I’ve also been able to put up dishes I’ve been really proud of, and I’ve learned a great deal about plating style and presentation.

Though I spend the majority of my time at the Brick Works, I did have the chance to spend an evening at the Royal Ontario Museum serving up “picnic biscuits” for Toronto Taste 2012, an annual fundraising event in support of Toronto’s Second Harvest, which brings together some of the city’s best restaurant and beverage purveyors. We were among them. I think the kids would say that was “rad.”

Of course, it hasn’t been all work. On a previous day off, when my dear friend and chef, @charlotke, invited me to spend the day with her at Norman Hardie’s winery, I leapt at the chance. Not only does Norman make absolutely brilliant wine, but his vineyard is located in the otherworldly and utterly picturesque Prince Edward County.

In all, the first six weeks have tough, tiring, but never dull. Indeed, all signs suggest it will be a fantastic summer.

I had barely had time to settle in Toronto, following my mad dash across northwestern Ontario, when I found myself flying home to Winnipeg last week for a four-day training program with my coach and evening dining instructor to prepare for the Skills Canada competition in Edmonton.

In short, from the time my brother and I left Winnipeg on May 1, I have been going flat out — as a cross-country driver, furniture mover, newbie cook, and, now, national culinary competitor.

As a consequence, I have tried to avoid sitting for long periods of time; I fear if I stop moving, my head will keep spinning right off my body, onto the floor and down a hallway or street like an errant ball or tumbleweed.

However, the effort and exhaustion have been worth it: the past few days in Edmonton have been great fun and, more importantly, I’ve made great strides technically and creatively as a cook.

The competition spanned two days: three and a half hours on the first day to prepare the appetizer course; four on the second to prepare the main. The scope was similar to the provincial competition: the first course had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops; both had to feature a farce or forcemeat, and a sauce.

Day One: Quail Duo
Terrine with a Fennel, Orange and Basil Slaw, and an Apple Coulis
Bacon-wrapped Ballontine with a Spinach Farce, and a Port-wine Reduction

Day Two: Salmon & Scallop
Loin of Salmon with a Scallop Mousseline Crown, Pan-seared Scallops with a Shiitake and Button Mushroom Duxelles, Roasted Garlic and Lemon Parisienne-style Gnocchi, Asparagus, and a Beurre Blanc

Did I win? Nah.

I am totally cool with the result, too. I knew the odds were slim, my competition steep. I also knew simply doing it — and all the work that would go into getting ready for it — was reward enough for me.

Will there be other competitions in my culinary future? Hard to say. After all, it’s been many years since I actually competed in anything — and never at something as challenging as cooking.

During my years in secondary school, I competed quite frequently and quite capably in public speaking and debating. And while all competitions are similar in some ways, the key difference, for me anyway, between competitive communications and cookery is that I had natural knack for speaking in front of a crowd.

Cooking is another story.

In fact, I suspect one of the reasons why I’m so enamoured with the culinary arts is because I actually have to work my butt off. Yep, it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

True story.

And being a competitor at Skills Canada? Made the Grand Finals in Cyprus over a decade ago seem so… simple.

No matter. I try to live my life like I might get run over by a big red bus. I love a challenge, too. And on the heels of Edmonton 2012, I’m ready to tackle this challenge.

Knives sharp!

The black box. More daunting than it sounds, thanks in no small measure to television programs like Chopped, which have sensationalized this venerable culinary test.

Nevertheless, it was all that stood between me and the proverbial door; my final exam before bidding farewell to Red River College, its kitchens and classrooms, my classmates and culinary instructors.

It’s been an interesting two years — and it all boiled down to this: pickerel fillets, shrimp, eggs, semolina flour, Belgian endive, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, golden raisins, and mustard seeds.

Using all of those items, I had three hours to produce two entree plates featuring both proteins, two vegetables, a starch, a sauce and an appropriate garnish.

I’ll admit, the semolina threw me for a bit of a loop. I’d been so prepared for a grain-based starch (i.e., Basmati or Jasmine rice), or a potato derivative like gnocchi, it hadn’t even occurred to me our chef might toss semolina in our box and expect us to whip up a batch of pasta. But that’s precisely what I did; fettuccine to be exact.

With the pasta I prepared a roasted tomato and bell pepper sauce, and served it all with asparagus tips, shaved endive and pan-fried garlic-and-herb shrimp. I also breaded the fillets, pan-fried them and served them with a mustard seed aioli, marinated raisins and a parsley and yellow pepper salad.

Was it a knock-out? No. I’m mature enough to recognize the plate’s many weaknesses. Still, being my first time working under such conditions (no prior knowledge of the ingredients, and a limited time-frame to develop and produce the finished product), I set down my plates at the appointed hour with equal measures of relief and satisfaction.

Of course, immediately my mind was racing: thinking of the ingredients and the seemingly limitless permutations of finished plates they afforded. I almost wished I could do it all over again just for the chance to do something different. Almost.

It’s hard to believe my time at the college is over. No fanfare. No farewell. Just a black box, a shaking of hands, and good wishes between those of us testing that day.

I keep reminding myself: this isn’t an ending, it’s just the beginning. These past two years were merely preparation for the actual culinary journey that lays before me. Where will that journey take me? What will I see, and smell, and taste along the way? If I had the answers, what’d be the point of embarking on it?

Onward.

On Wednesday afternoon, after nearly a month of Monday evenings spent practicing and preparing, I competed in the 15th annual Skills Manitoba Cooking Competition.

Each competitor was required to present two courses; the first of which had to feature quail served both hot and cold, and the second, salmon and scallops. Both courses also had to feature a farce or forcemeat and a sauce. I offered the following:

First Course | Quail Duo
Roasted Breast and Leg | Teriyaki Glaze | Wild Rice Pilaf
Terrine | Green Grape Gastrique | Torched Orange Segments

Second Course | Salmon & Scallop
Pan-roasted Medallions of Salmon | Scallop Mousseline
Parisienne Gnocchi | Asparagus | Carrot Purée | Browned Butter Hollandaise

I’d reluctantly agreed to participate in the event, not so much to compete in the event itself, but to gain additional practice for my final black-box exam, which is taking place in just over a week’s time.

Ironically, I did rather well: I won the gold medal!

I was and remain quite surprised: it’s been many, many years since I’ve competed in anything, save for one other culinary competition last year. Nevertheless, having been named the winner of the competition, I will be moving on to the national event taking place in Edmonton in mid-May.

I am both honoured and humbled at the prospect of representing my school and my province at the Skills Canada competition — and have every intention of bringing to bear every skill and technique I’ve learned in the past two years during that event. I feel I owe it to my instructors who’ve trained me, and to my parents who’ve supported me to do no less.

In the meantime, I shall be honing my technique, refining my menu (the national competition replicates the provincial one’s criteria: two courses; first, quail; second, salmon and scallops); and, more than anything else, practicing, practicing, practicing.

Needless to say, I will be a very busy boy in the next few weeks, balancing the barrage of end-of-term assignments, the final weeks of evening dinner service in the college’s Prairie Lights restaurant, and, now, preparing for Skills Canada.

When it rains it pours!

It’s been a week since Prairie Lights Restaurant — Red River College’s fine-dining training facility — opened it’s doors for dinner service. During the first third of our run, from March 1st through March 16th,  I have the pleasure of working in the front of the house, as a server.

It’s been a fascinating experience thus far, and afforded me an entirely new perspective on the restaurant industry.

I have long held servers in high esteem, and consider their efforts invaluable to any restaurant’s operation. Still, until now, I’d never “walked a mile in their shoes.” What have I learned? More than anything else, it’s a lot harder than it looks.

Indeed, inasmuch as it’s about the details in the kitchen, it’s about the details in the dining room; the small things, done right, that make the difference.The precise placement of flatware, tableware and glassware; the way in which the napkin is folded and set; the artful serving and subsequent removal (from the left, then the right) of food items; the unobtrusive manner in which beverages are served, refilled and, finally, removed (always from the right, and from the stem). Little things, executed effortlessly.

Am I an expert? Hardly! I do, however, appreciate the aim, and am making every effort to reach it.

Of course, being a fine dining restaurant, there are some not-so-small things that must be done well, too.

Whilst rarely seen on most restaurant’s menus nowadays, we offer both a flambéed entrée (Prosciutto, Peach and Thyme-Stuffed Pork Chop Flambéed with Calvados) and dessert item (Crêpe Suzette Flambé), as well as an assortment of specialty coffees (Monte Cristo, Blueberry Tea, to name a few) prepared and flamed table-side.

As such, I’ve also had the chance to play with fire. Literally. It’s been a hoot, though not for the faint of heart — or bushy eye-browed.

While it may be too late for you to witness my table-side flambé skills and sample some of what my culinary peers have been preparing from our first menu, you still have the chance to secure a table and sample Menu 2 or Menu 3 before we close our doors at the end of April. Simply visit Prairie Lights’ website to make a reservation… and have a lovely evening.

Having completed Advanced Patisserie, all that stands between me and my future as a culinary nomad is one more college course: Evening Dining.

Yes, after eight weeks of pastries and petit fours, cakes and chemical thickeners, chocolate and choice desserts, I’m returning to the Prairie Lights kitchen for one final shift; my college swan song, my academic last hurrah.

Truth be told, I’m anxious to get back into the kitchen after so many weeks in the pastry lab. I yearn for the heat of a proper kitchen, the speed of a working line.

I have no doubt I’ll get my wish; the standards are quite high in the Prairie Lights kitchen and the expectations our instructors have of us by this point in our education even higher.

You’re more than welcome to see for yourself if my classmates and I can hack it: the restaurant is now accepting reservations for the evening session.

We’re open from March 1st through April 20th, Tuesdays through Fridays. During that time, we’re offering three menus, each running for approximately two weeks.

Have a look! Make a reservation! Try all three! Bon appétit!