So, what should we have for dinner?

In the majority of cities around the world, this question would not require a great deal of deliberation. Each region has its staple fare, its traditions, and very specific foundations for its cuisine. Food is influenced by cultural identity, so those in ethnically homogenous societies where food diversity is not readily available, to hearken it to food journalist Michael Pollen’s koala bear example, will be having eucalyptus leaves tonight.

But as Vancouverites well know, we’re privy to one of the most impressive culinary landscapes in the world. As an internationally-recognized city, our population represents all corners of the globe, and all walks of life. Ethnic eateries are embraced and celebrated, and certainly not in short supply. Though our sophisticated populous recognizes this good fortune, we may still take for granted the sight of a Mongolian restaurant next door to an Ethiopian café – across the street from a Jamaican diner. This, folks, is not the norm.

To best understand Vancouver’s culinary climate, we need to thoroughly explore its framework. And who better to discuss Vancouver’s place in the food world, and the food world’s place in Vancouver, than a well-traveled chef who helps produce not only some of its greatest culinary creations, but also the next generation of students whose creativity and vision will help us continue to make our culinary mark.

Chef Christophe Kwiatkowsky, food consultant and owner of Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver, has spent over 25 years in the food and hospitality industries, perfecting his skills and palate throughout Europe, Canada, and the West Indies. He has worked in five star hotels, owned his own restaurant, and served aboard high-profile cruise ships. Before opening his own academy with Chef Tony Minichiello, he taught for five years at the esteemed Dubrulle Culinary Institute.

Chef Christophe on Vancouver’s evolved food culture:

“Vancouver is a true culinary microclimate,” he says. “If you go down to Seattle, or anywhere else close by, you’ll see it’s completely different. The selection is diverse and, for the price, the quality would rival that of any major city in the world.” He adds: “There exists a very sophisticated and educated clientele in Vancouver. People here want to know the source of their food. They want their food to be local, organic and ethically grown.”

On North American and European attitudes toward food:

“People in North America make a big deal about where their food comes from. They want to know if the fish is sustainable, if the food is organic, what’s in the food, and if it’s all fair trade. In Europe, these topics do not receive a lot of mainstream attention, and aren’t discussed nearly as much. They’re important things to consider, but the topic has been beaten into the ground.” Chef Christophe suggests for people to, “Go with the flow. Enjoy the food you eat, and don’t focus so much on food politics. It takes too much away from the actual enjoyment and experience of eating.”

On the business of the industry:

Chef Christophe says that thinking ahead and having multi-skilled employees are keys for achieving success in this difficult and competitive business.
“I find restaurant chefs aren’t always organized with respect to their employee’s growth and development,” he states. “Chefs sometimes fly by the seat of their pants and don’t have a long-term plan. They don’t always realise that new cooks need ongoing coaching and training, and should be prepared at more than one position.” He adds: “Hotels do better because they’re better planners and are willing to pay more for quality help.”
He also thinks that some of the time spent on food analysis should be put towards improving the quality of the employees, as they are the very crux of a successful establishment.

On Vancouver

Chef Christophe says there are two kinds of cooks: “Those who are passionate about cooking and will never do anything else, and those who are just looking for a paycheck.”
“Cooks here are still making $12-$14 an hour in our industry,” he says. “Employers want to have a stable job pool to choose from, but at those wages, in this city, there is no stability.”
He also notes that people transitioning to higher paying jobs in the construction sector have hurt the overall talent pool.
“When somebody can make $20 an hour in construction, they do it. To retain quality help, restaurants need to think about where the cooks come from.” He adds that businesses should recognize where their students have been, what kind of training they’ve received, and remember that quality and stability comes with a price.

On his teaching philosophy:

Students need to familiarize themselves with the fundamentals of cooking, Chef Christophe says, but that doing too much of the same thing for too long can be counter-productive.
“Students need to have diversity in their tasks, and should know when to move on to something new. That is partly on the instructors, but it is also up to the students to be proactive, both in their growth and for their futures.”
“It is important to closely monitor your students while they’re training, and stay in touch with them once they’ve entered employment,” he states. “I’m much more aware of where my students go now than ever before.”

Please visit the Northwest Culinary Acacademy of Vancouver’s website for more information.

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Traditionally speaking, a person enrolls in a culinary class because they want to learn how to cook. It’s an obvious statement, one few would choose to reason against. Why else would a person learn how to garnish a tomato into a rose, season a cast iron pan, or cook a piece of chicken to perfection? Food has become a mainstream passion for many, and with more and more qualified individuals to choose from in the admissions pool, enrollment into culinary programs is at an all time high.

The publicity generated by the Food Network and chefs with their own books, frozen-food lines, and cookware helps explain why many people view cooking not just as a way to make a living but also to make their name. And while for centuries chefs learned their craft apprenticing in the kitchens of great restaurants, some members of the new generation believe that a degree from a top school will boost their credibility in the profession – and give them instant access to a wide network of alumni.

But despite the manner in which our culture celebrates and aggrandizes cooking, becoming a master chef is anything but glamorous. It involves years of training, requires long, tedious, often thankless hours of labour, and is essentially a lifelong commitment. It means getting dirty, sustaining injuries, studying history, and starting from the bottom of the ladder. It’s a long road, even for someone infinitely passionate about perfecting the art of food preparation.

While this or a similar story will apply for many, it certainly isn’t representative of all those who wish to entertain professional cooking advice. As some local schools have discovered, conducting a cooking class is often times only a tertiary part of the experience.

Kusum Simgh, of Good Karma Cooking School in Surrey, says many of her students have never cooked before, which is especially challenging when learning the ins and outs of Indian cuisine.
“Many people have no clue,” she says. “I have to measure things out for them and everything. We supply certificates at the end of our 12 lesson courses, but the important thing for a lot of them is just to learn about the spices. It gets crazy sometimes, but everyone is having fun.”
Simgh says her classes are serious and quite involved, but for many of her students the company and social experience is as important as the cooking itself.”

“They take the booklet I give them with the recipes and make them at home,” she adds. “A lot of the women enjoy spending time together. It gives them something to do that is fun.”

Cooking as an event has become increasingly popular in recent years. Culinary classes centered on “girl’s night out” or “cooking with singles” promotions suggests the diversification of this trend. Cooking has become something to do with friends on a weekend night, or a place to meet or take a date. High-profile corporations are even sending their employees to cooking school in the hopes that this activity will provide inspiration and improvement in business.

At Quince, a Kitsilano-area gourmet food store and cooking studio, owner Andrea Jefferson has led classes for corporate functions on behalf of Telus, Nike, Best Buy, and numerous other companies across North America. She adds value to her client’s cooking seminars by emphasizing not only the dishes they create, but also the character-building facets of the experience.

“We try to make sure everyone is connecting, communicating and contributing,” says Jefferson, a sommelier, chef and former instructor at Dubrulle Culinary Institute. “A lot of our corporate clients take a fresh perspective from cooking. They are all experts at something else, but in the kitchen their roles are redefined. People who aren’t normally leaders can step up and those who do lead can graciously relinquish control. It creates an atmosphere of camaraderie and is a nice break from the competitive world.”

Indeed, cooking is an exercise that is quite metaphorical to real life. Effective communication can mean the difference between overlooking an important business detail for a meeting, or overcooking the pineapple-upside-down cake in the oven. The kitchen is unfamiliar territory for many of us, especially when working in a group. A professional cooking experience is unique in that it provides a new arena for creativity and helps improve problem solving and critical thinking both at home and in the workplace.

“Cooking is a very social and empowering experience,” Jefferson adds. “The finished product is important, but so is having fun and enjoying what you made with your group afterwards.”