If you’re looking for a unique dining experience, escape the ordinary and discover how students at some of the finest culinary colleges in Canada are pushing the boundaries of gourmet food.
Not only will you have the chance to indulge in the offerings of students testing their ability to create top-notch menus, you’ll help in the development of tomorrow’s top chefs, invest in the Canadian culinary industry and boost local businesses. Plus, the experience often comes at a price that won’t break the bank – and that’s a cherry on top.
So, as you plan your summer escapes, add a dash of adventure to your regular routine. Try a dish infused with not only the freshest herbs and spices, but the passion and ingenuity of future Mark McEwans. Go for a foodie road trip and spice up your summer – and palate – at restaurants in three different regions of the province.
When Ryan Cullen first began working as a student at Bistro ‘67, he was able to tell his guests something few servers could say.
“I could look at their plate, point out the window and say, ‘I picked that carrot for you this morning,’” Cullen says.
What Cullen’s referring to is the unique opportunity he had at the W. Galen Weston Centre for Food (CFF) in Whitby, Ont. Focused on field-to-fork and sustainable business practices, the one-stop-shop houses Durham College’s programs in culinary, food and farming, horticulture, hospitality training and more.
It also features the elite on-site, student-run restaurant Bistro ‘67 and, just outside its doors, there is an apple orchard, a greenhouse, a post-harvest storage facility and nearly an acre of land where students tend to everything from rhubarb to root vegetables.
Having everything on-site meant Cullen, now field supervisor, could go from picking crops in the morning to serving in the bistro at night.
“It was field-to-fork for me, too,” he says with a laugh. “This place really brings the two worlds together — the grower and the chef — in one really cool space,” he says. “For the students, it’s amazing.”
Trendy dishes, locally sourced
As CFF general manager Kelly O’Brien points out, it’s amazing for bistro guests, too.
“Since we’re a learning environment, it ensures everything is on-trend,” she says, noting that menus are chef-approved, but student-created. “Some of the things they come up with, I’m just like how [did you think of that]?” O’Brien says.
A quick glance at the menu and it’s easy to be enticed: from the seared Muskovy duck breast with Popham Lane Farm blackcurrant and ginger glaze cauliflower and potato purée with dandelion greens to the Blackened Kendal Hills Game farm half chicken with Roma tomatoes and DC basil beurre blanc, spring vegetables and sautéed purple potatoes, it’s unlikely the word “novice” comes to mind.
What inspires student creations though isn’t hard to find – students are challenged to use everything at the school’s doorstep. And when they don’t have what they need – they don’t look far. The bistro, which holds the Feast On designation, prides itself on supporting the community, working with one local farm for chicken and mushrooms, for example, and another nearby father-and-son duo for their coffee.
Expert foodies will also be drawn to Bistro 67’s cutting-edge collaborations. Partnering with local suppliers means many of their dishes and cocktails are one of a kind.
For example, they recently teamed up with a distillery to create a unique strawberry gin, which will be used to make cocktails at local restaurants. The college has also joined forces with a brewery, collaborating on two brews: one, a sweet potato stout, and another that will feature marigold, herbs and flowers that were all grown on-site by students and which will be served in the bistro.
If that’s not enough to tantalize your taste buds, O’Brien says that every year students create a completely new item, such as the “cucumelon”.
“It looks like a small watermelon, but it tastes like a cucumber,” she says, adding that “pineberry” – that is, a white strawberry with pineapple flavour – is also in the works.
“We might come up with a cocktail or something at a brewery,” she says. “It’s important to us to grow what we can use and utilize.”
Which brings up another key focus: sustainability. The school has been so successful at reducing food waste that companies are looking to model some of their practices.
“Reducing food waste is big for us. We get creative with how we can transform food,” O’Brien says, noting they once had a surplus of beets so decided to make beet ketchup instead of throwing them away.
‘Heart and soul’
Chuck Thibeault, executive director of Central Counties Tourism, says for tourists in the area, visiting Bistro ’67 and other local establishments is a meaningful way to experience the region.
“Agri-tourism is all about connecting with food,” he says. “By combining agriculture and tourism, families experience an authentic way to enjoy the rural landscapes and terroir of York, Durham and Headwaters, while indulging in amazing educational experiences focused on the sustainable development of organically, locally grown food, craft beer, wine and alcohol unique to our regions.”
As for the fact that Bistro ’67 relies on chefs-to-be, O’Brien assures guests will have a premier dining experience.
“We have a dynamic, passionate team, we oversee and mentor the students. … Everyone’s heart and soul is in it to be the best we can be and serve the best we can,” she says.
And the experience, Cullen says, is a special one.
“We’re really pushing the boundaries on the kind of culture we need to have in our communities and our towns and our cities,” he says. “We’ve lost that connection with food, and we’re changing that paradigm a little. I think it’s a model that can be replicated.”
THE CHEF’S TABLE
When you think of fine dining options in London, Ont., a city of about 385,000 surrounded by farmland, you might not expect the most international culinary experience.
But thanks to The Chef’s Table, a Feast On-certified restaurant operated by Fanshawe College’s School of Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Arts, world-class dishes are infused with global inspiration.
“We have so much cultural diversity amongst our student population. I continually find myself asking more questions than I’m answering,” Chef Kyle Fee says.
With more international students than ever before in the program, it means that those grilling, grinding and glazing are also adding foreign flavour to the dishes they serve.
Everyone’s heart and soul is in it to be the best we can be and serve the best we can.— Kelly O’Brien, General manager, W. Galen Weston Centre for Food
“Some of our students come up with some incredible menu ideas. Some apply techniques from home, or just really research and want to attempt something new and different. When this happens, we embrace it,” Fee says.
He also notes that some of the restaurant’s diversity comes from blending different areas of study together. The restaurant welcomes students from a range of programs, including baking and pastry arts, food and nutrition and culinary management.
Fundamentals and technique
Just as students — roughly 150 putting their skills to the test at the restaurant each day — have the chance to innovate, Fee says menus are based on fundamentals and technique.
“We try to make everything, from the cheese on our caprese salad to the bacon on our burgers,” he says. “We want to expose them to a lot of technique to broaden their understanding of what it takes to make those products. Sure, they can come in a vacuum-sealed package or a bucket, but they don’t have to.”
Jen Moore, marketing and communications manager at Southwest Ontario Tourism Corporation, says The Chef’s Table is helping to put the region on the culinary map.
“Ontario’s Southwest region is attracting some of the world’s top culinary talents, from chefs, wine makers and brewers to artisanal cheese makers and organic farmers. This results in a booming farm-to-table, wine and craft beer scene. It all starts with great ideas like The Chef’s Table at Fanshawe College,” she says.
Fresh and seasonal
Emma Rankin, restaurant, café and events manager, says another worthy feature of The Chef’s Table is that much of the food is sourced locally, including meat, chicken, beef, coffee, tea and brews.
“Our cocktail list always under constant review and development, and we locally source products from distilleries as well, so everything is fresh and seasonal,” she explains.
The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, and the students — who work both front and back of house — serve at special events as well, such as a recent VIP dinner for the Juno Awards, which took place in London earlier this year.
At that exclusive event, students ran live stations where they prepared specially designed hors d’oeurves in front of elite industry guests. Student-created dishes were also selected for the main menu.
Guests ‘love being part of that experience’
It’s that student-learning element that excites Fee the most.
“The thing that really energizes me is working closely with the students. Most of them are very passionate and eager to learn a topic that I’ve devoted over half of my life to. So, a lot of the time it doesn’t feel like work,” he says.
Rankin says students are also a highlight for guests.
“When you eat at the restaurant and experience an event here, the guests are so intrigued,” she says. “They just love being part of that experience, and they love supporting the learning of the younger generation.”
They say if you can’t take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen. If culinary students in a Niagara Parks apprenticeship program can prove anything, it’s that they can take it.
Learning how to poach, purée, scallop and sear all while serving guests from all over the world at one of Canada’s premier tourist destinations mean they’re not only working with a pressure cooker – they’re in one.
“Everyone’s a foodie now, guests have higher expectations than they did 30 years ago,” says Paul Pennock, director of culinary services with Niagara Parks.
Pennock is referring to the impact of Instagram and other social media sites that have cultivated mass followings of food lovers posting picture-perfect and drool-worthy dishes.
“There’s high pressure. We have international guests – you need to make it exciting for them,” he says.
The Niagara Parks apprenticeship program is in partnership with Niagara College and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Student apprentices get to learn alongside leading chefs at one of five fine dining, Feast On-certified establishments in the region, including the newly renovated Table Rock House Restaurant, which offers a front-row view of Niagara Falls.
“We wanted to improve the site lines to the falls, and we took time to revamp our menu, looking at what dish is best for every single item, so everything is new, unique and stands with our vision of being champions of local food and beverage,” Pennock says of their flagship restaurant, which reopened May 1.
The other Feast On-certified restaurants are: Queen Victoria Place Restaurant; Queenston Heights Restaurant; Whirlpool Golf Course Restaurant; and Legends on the Niagara Restaurant.
Wineries: ‘Hard to keep track’
Students in the program complete 6,000 hours of training and gain experience in all five Niagara Parks restaurants. During that time, they serve weddings, corporate groups, individual travellers and families.
Students are challenged to create menus with a smorgasbord of locally sourced foods and ingredients, wowing their guests with the freshest of flavours.
“We’re fortunate to have everything here – not only the fruit belt (known for cherries, strawberries, peaches, plums, apples, pears and more) but an agricultural mecca,” Pennock says, noting the region has more than 100 wineries.
“A new one opens every week – it’s hard to keep track,” he says, adding that one of the region’s most understated treats are freshwater fish, including perch, pickerel, rainbow trout and arctic char.
“That’s something we’re proud to feature in our restaurants,” he says.
In fact, with roughly 60 per cent of food and 90 per cent of their beverages locally sourced, David Adames, CEO of Niagara Parks, says, “As a self-sustaining agency of the province of Ontario, we pride ourselves on providing inspiring dining experiences that truly showcase a taste of place. At Niagara Parks we know that for many of our international visitors this may be their first, true Canadian culinary moment, so we strive make sure that it is an unforgettable one featuring the authentic flavours of Ontario.”
Students: ‘the foundations of our success’
But what they’re also proud of is the program’s investment in Canada’s future chefs.
“It’s one of the foundations of our success,” Pennock says of the apprenticeship program. “It’s really important to bring people into the industry, and it’s important to make sure we create an enticing environment, that we give students an opportunity to advance and to learn.
“If we don’t invest in these things, there won’t be anyone there to cook in the future,” he adds.
For students, the opportunity to foster their careers in a tourism hotspot is just as valuable.
“There’s wonderful foods and wines in the Niagara Region to focus on and showcase … so to have the opportunity to work here, learning from great chefs, it helps build their resume,” Pennock says. “You can be proud that you catered to visitors from around the world at one of the most spectacular views.”
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