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October 1, 2011 11:47 AM

Culinary Classroom - Students Learn from Real Life: Pro Kitchen and Public Dining Room

Tomato Consomme with crispy goat cheese wontons; spinach and brie stuffed chicken breast; rhubarb mousse vivified with pistachio joconde and white chocolate chantilly cream.

It’s not exactly the lineup one would expect from a group of college students. Isn’t college all about gooey pizza and suds?

Well, not at this training-facility-cum-restaurant called bloom.

Conestoga College culinary arts program at the Waterloo campus, the dining room operates under the tagline “educate-eat-experience.” And these three words certainly hit the mark.

“Hospitality and culinary students oversee the dining room and prepare the menu items as part of their curriculum,” says Matthew Worden, dining room manager and sommelier at bloom. “This way aspiring chefs and restaurant managers have an outlet for their classroom instruction and a competitive edge by gaining the hands-on customer service, food production and teamwork experience necessary to succeed in an increasingly competitive and demanding field.”

That covers the “educate” and “experience” parts of the motto; the “eat” part involves the general public. Starting again in October, patrons can enjoy sophisticated three- or four-course meals worthy of restaurants manned by Hollywood chefs, but without the hefty bill, and “experience” an elegant dining environment replete with fancy dinnerware, wine and a live kitchen view to spy on the students in action. Blissfully, no Gordon Ramsay-like blowups have been caught on camera.

Keeping students on their toes, the menu changes weekly and, when possible, is steered towards local and seasonal victuals. “We try to keep the program and menu evolving to stay fresh and relevant,” says Worden. An on-site garden produces many of the herbs used to garnish dishes such as the chocolate tart with cherry ganache, which is the epitome of chocolate intensity.

Wine service is taken seriously and further heightens the patrons’ dining experience. Worden has used his industry experience to put together a burgeoning and elaborate list of more than 150 selections featuring both Ontario and international flavours. That list even won a 2011 award of excellence from The Wine Spectator.

“This goes a long way in helping our students learn the nuances of wine pairing,” he says.

“The public can be skeptical about spending their dining dollars at a restaurant run by students in training,” says Worden, “but we do everything we can to make sure they leave experiencing first-class flavours and hospitality.”

Older generations who have become faithful diners are the leading demographic at bloom. “We’re also targeting the parents of students and local businesses such as RIM and Manulife for support,” Worden says.

Chef Damien Ingrao oversees the kitchen, insisting that his students don’t neglect important station-by-station things like timing, plating, organization and sanitation.

“Missteps are going to happen, but it’s better that they learn from them in a controlled lab environment than tossing them out there in the real world unprepared where people now expect more from restaurants and demand better food,” he says.

“The great thing about working with these students,” he adds matter-of-factly, “is that there is none of the ego you’d see in some of the popular cooking shows.”

Coming to the program from Cambridge’s lauded Langdon Hall, Ingrao is part of a diverse team of instructors with international experience in the food biz. Through demonstrations, lectures and hands-on practice, students will leave the program with a varied culinary education covering aspects such as theory (i.e. what the heck is an amuse bouche?), food safety, knife skills, food presentation and butchering. (If you are wondering, an amuse bouche is a bite-sized appetizer.)

Some programs are one year; culinary management and hospitality management (hotel and restaurant) are both two-year co-op programs. Classrooms are modern and replete with computers at each of the stainless steel workstations.

“Techniques are classic, French-based generally,” says Ingrao. Students are educated in many different modern preparation methods and cuisines of the world.

Management skills include menu cost control, computer know-how and marketing. The program, which has a 90- per-cent placement rate after graduation, also offers a paid co-op term where students have the opportunity to hone their skills locally, nationally or even overseas.

“A number of our students are seeking out a second career, and ages have ranged from 18 to 62,” Worden notes. It’s a testament to the craft of cookery being as desirable as ever as the Food Network gains more airtime in households.

“I can’t get enough of the adrenaline rush that comes with participating in the restaurant lab,” says Ana Millar, 34, a culinary student who decided to pursue a passion for cooking after her factory position was nullified during the recent recession.

“I’m constantly learning from my instructors and fellow students making this such a rewarding environment,” says Millar, who is from Cambridge.

Having worked in the industry a number of years ago, her goal is take the new knowledge and experiences gleaned from the program and open a local restaurant with a Canadian-Latin fusion menu.

Adding undeniable credibility to the program, this spring rock star Master Chef Susur Lee cooked alongside Conestoga students for the Culinary & Hospitality Student Fundraising Dinner at bloom.

The funds raised from the $200-a-plate affair with the chef, whom Food & Wine has hailed as one of the Ten Chefs of the Millennium, will go toward future scholarships for Conestoga culinary and hospitality students.

Worden, who worked at Lee’s Torontobased restaurant for four years, believes one can’t overstate the experience students gained by crafting a four-course menu with Lee, consisting of ambrosial delights such as seared white tuna with lemon grass and rack of lamb with a chickpea purée.

In fact, impressed by the students’ abilities to handle the heat, Lee requested a team from the culinary program assist him with an event at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto.

“Our goal is to inspire good cooks to perform their craft well, contribute to the local food culture and work towards earning their Red Seal certification,” says Ingrao.

One culinary arts student, Wallace Wong, recently took home a gold medal at the Ontario Technological Skills Competition.

Indeed, the culinary landscape of Waterloo Region looks like it’s about to, well, bloom.

This article was originally featured in Grand Magazine in September/October of 2011. Written by Matthew McCarthy.

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