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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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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.

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!

 

Yesterday marked the beginning of my fifth and final academic semester at Red River College. All that remains, come May, is a final, four-month work placement of my choosing — about which I will have plenty to say as the end of April draws nearer. Until then, I shall be toiling away in the college’s kitchens.

During the first half of the term, I’ll be picking up where I left off last winter, honing my pastry skills in Patisserie Level 2. Then, in the latter half of the term, I’ll be back in the Prairie Lights Restaurant, this time for evening dining service.

I still find it hard to believe my time as an official student of the culinary arts is coming to an end. (I’ll be an unofficial student my entire life, of course.) It’s been such a fantastic journey and I find it remarkable how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come in such a short period of time. It seems like only yesterday I was walking into the classroom for the first time, wondering what lay ahead of me, whether or not I could hack it, why, again, I was doing it.

Thankfully, I’ve answered those questions: I’m doing what I love; damn straight I can hack it; I’ve my whole life ahead of me — and it’s slathered in butter.

The last of the dishes were washed, the pots and pans in their proper places; the fridge was cleaned of any potential spoilage, the floors swept and mopped. Done at the close of business each day in commercial kitchens everywhere, it’s a ritual that takes on a little more poignancy when it also marks an academic milestone.

And that’s precisely what yesterday was for me and my fellow students: the conclusion of our fourth semester at Red River College.

I shake my head, still, at the thought of it being mid-December already. These past four months have truly flown by. And yet, what’s even more remarkable to me is how far I’ve come since this time last year.

It’s hard to catalog or capture just how much I’ve learned; the various cooking methods and cuisines, the many tools and trade secrets. So much crammed into 8 months of schooling and another 4 on-the-job training!

Of all the things I’ve learned, however, the most important is confidence.

Honestly, if I think about where I am today and where I was a year ago, my single greatest accomplishment in that time has been my growth as a confident cook; being able to walk into a kitchen, any kitchen, and feel not threatened but thoroughly excited at the prospect of setting pan to flame and cooking.

Naturally, this confidence is grounded in an expanding skill set and increasing breadth of knowledge; without either I’d be the same uncertain student I was when I started the program.

Confidence, of course, is nothing without humility — and I learned a lot about being humble this year, too.

The kitchen is a great equalizer: no matter where you’ve come from, what you did outside the kitchen, who you knew, where you lived; it’s all irrelevant when you’re in the shit, the bills are piling up, and you need to push plates out.

So, you keep your head down, work confidently — ever mindful you’re only as good as you’re last plate, and, more important still, you’ll forever be a student in the never-ending study of culinary perfection.

On Friday, on a bit of a whim and after some gentle chiding from one of my instructors, I competed in the college’s annual Turkey Cook-Off, co-sponsored by Granny’s Poultry and the Manitoba Turkey Producers. It was my first cooking competition.

Know this: I did not secure a spot in the top three, have no idea how I placed amongst the eight of us that competed, and I’m totally okay with it.

Honest.

I didn’t quite know what to expect, and had few if any preconceived notions how I would do. I just wanted to see what this competition thing was all about. And so, a little bleary-eyed at 7:30 in the morning, arrived in the kitchen to give it a bit of a go.

And go I did, producing the requisite appetizer and main course in the allotted time.

My offerings: a ground turkey ravioli with carrot purée and a browned-butter sauce, and a pecan-stuffed turkey breast roulade with a cranberry-red wine reduction.

Could I have done better? Always. Did I have fun and learn a thing or two along the way? Of course.

Mission accomplished, as far as I’m concerned. And hey, great practice for the forthcoming holiday season.

With the holiday season fast approaching, and my desire for a break rapidly increasing, we thankfully began our final course for the semester: Charcuterie and Buffets.

And for those of you unfamiliar with the term, “charcuterie,” let me simply say this: sausages, pâtés, bacon, smoked and cured meats and fish, stuffed pheasants and game animals, confits and rillettes.

Awesome, eh?

Yeah, I thought as much and thus far I have not been disappointed. After all, unlike the fast-paced, white-knuckle sautéing in the Prairie Lights restaurant, or the batch-cooking chaos of Regional and Seasonal Cuisine, this course is proceeding at a leisurely clip.

And rightly so: curing, brining, smoking, pickling, grinding, stuffing; all good things that come to those who wait.

Despite the unpleasantness of stuffing meat through progressively smaller grinding plates (let along the outright nastiness of doing the same with fish), the process has been both informative and, dare I say, fun.

Think for a moment: how many sausage links or strips of bacon have you consumed in your lifetime? I know I’ve eaten my fair share — and until now, knew nothing of how they were made.

It’s a fascinating process and, frankly, done properly, like the pros of yore, yields products Maple Leaf or Oscar Meyer can’t even come close to replicating.

Seriously.

I had the pleasure of making kielbasa one morning. A f**king revelation.

I kid you not — and I was born and raised in Winnipeg, where kielbasa and perogies and cabbage rolls are as plentiful as smoked meat, bagels and cigarettes are in Montreal.

Of course, simply making all of these amazing products is only half the fun of this particular course. We plate and serve it, too, at expansive Thursday buffets.

And in order to properly display our meat-making handiwork, we prepare show platters, smothered in aspic jelly.

Why pâtés, galantines, terrines and other various meats have fallen out of favour, I know not. I do know this, however: I’m so glad for having had the chance to prepare them, and other charcuterie. For they’re fun to prepare, a feast for the eyes, and a treat to eat with a little cumberland sauce, gherkins and, yes, a cold pint.