Appetite growing for culinary program
A circle of students dressed in chef jackets peer into the frying pan where chicken breasts are sizzling. A few steps away, another group is learning how to wind dough into pretzels.
Over it all, the smell of cookies baking in the oven fills the room.
It’s another morning in the culinary program at Bishop McNally High School and the classroom and adjacent cafeteria kitchen are humming with activity.
Now, a couple of weeks later, classes have come to an end for another scholastic year, but in those final days, the students in the high school’s culinary arts program were still slicing, dicing, cooking and serving up healthy food to their fellow students.
A third of the school’s population is enrolled at some level in the program and demand is so great that teachers are looking at creating after-school courses in the fall to accommodate all those who want to take part. This year, there are 400 students in the four levels — introductory, intermediate, advanced and apprentice. Next year, that will go to 450, says chef Rob Hendrickson, who is one of three chef instructors in the program.
“We’ve physically run out of space,” he says.
To chef Justin McCallum, who pitched the culinary arts program to officials at the Calgary Catholic School District in 2007, watching it grow has been exciting and encouraging.
“The students want to be there,” he says. “To me, this is what education is. It gives students options which we should be giving them; the more options we give them, the more potential they have.”
He did not anticipate, though, the ripple effect in the district.
“It’s extremely popular,” says Don Summersgill, who oversees the Careers and Technology Students program for the district. “When it started at McNally, it was instantly very popular. Students flocked to it.”
The appetite for the program is so strong, that the school district has expanded the program to other schools. Bishop Grandin’s culinary program is already up and running, while a new one at Notre Dame will be open to students in the fall. Father Lacombe will start offering courses in September 2015, following renovations next summer.
“As other high schools heard about it, they wanted to see it at their school,” says Summersgill.
Through the program, students learn the basics of cooking, as well as working in a kitchen that is equivalent in size to a mid-size hotel. As they rotate through the different stages — from cooking soups and sauces to handling meat — they make meals for the school’s two food establishments. Even those not taking the courses benefit by having access to affordable, healthy food options.
Besides learning lifelong skills, the program educates students on what food should look like and what their expectation should be for quality food.
Everything is brought in from scratch and made in-house. Students learn how to break down chickens and hips of beef, make bread and whip up sauces.
They also cater events and, each quarter, cook and serve a dinner to their families, teachers and community members. These term dinners — menus have included dishes like duck leg confit, pan-seared foie gras and mushroom tartine, and house-made lavender and honey ice cream — are an opportunity for the students to showcase their skills and talents, says Hendrickson.
“It’s amazing to see the amount of pride they put into their work.”
Although most don’t go on to have careers in the culinary world, a handful of students take the apprentice level and can challenge the first year of post-secondary programs by earning a minimum of 70 per cent on their ap- prenticeship exams.
That’s Kylan Labrador’s plan; she will bypass the first year of the three-year program at Red Deer College if she gets the marks.
The culinary classes helped her see how she wants her career to unfold.
“It’s a great place to realize this is what you want to do,” she says.
Vyvyan Huynh, a Grade 12 student from Father Lacombe who took the courses at Bishop McNally through the Centre of Excellence program, won gold at the Calgary competition for Skills Canada with what she learned through the program.
Ideally, she says, she wants to work for the Fairmont Palliser or a larger hotel so she can get more hands-on experience before eventually getting her bachelor’s degree in education so she can teach other students how to cook.
“I like the creativity,” she says. “It’s endless possibilities.”