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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.

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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.

Following a stressful, yet successful eight weeks working in the kitchen of Red River College’s Prairie Lights restaurant, I have moved upstairs, to the college’s main foodservice outlet, the Voyageur Cafeteria Dining Room.

Whilst this course is titled, “Regional and Seasonal Cuisine,” in reality it’s all about batch cooking. Sexy? Not really, no. Valuable? It is, absolutely.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so dismissive of the course’s lofty title: throughout we have made a concerted effort to feature local and seasonal products or, when appropriate, various cuisines from around the world.

Like the Hard Drive Cafe and Prairie Lights before it, the Voyageur revolves around a rotation schedule designed to ensure my colleagues and I are able to equally experience all aspects of the kitchen. This time around, it has meant time on the “global” station, wherein we’re responsible for preparing two proteins, a vegetable and a starch for between 60 and 80 people — always with an ethnic or national theme; the “island,” which offers steak sandwiches and a carvery; and, the pizza and pasta station, where we serve personal pizzas and, each day, one of us prepares a fresh pasta special.

It’s been fun. More than that, however, it’s given me more experience in, and an increased familiarity with a large-scale commercial kitchen.

Accurately calculating food quantities; maximizing ingredients on hand; making smart and, often, last-minute recipe substitutions or adaptations: all in a day in the Voyageur.

Not necessarily essential culinary skills, but definitely desirable ones — especially for an aspiring chef.