Skip to main content

Julie Philip leads a class at George Brown College in Toronto on Jan. 22. George Brown has partnered with renowned chef Alain Ducasse to expand their students’ horizons.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

"The role of the chef is to educate," announced Alain Ducasse. We were drinking prosecco over tuna crudo at Rob Gentile's Buca, tucked into the Four Seasons' flagship hotel in Toronto. Before lunch, Ducasse had walked through the kitchen like a general inspecting troops, chatting with the line cooks and taking a careful look at their mise en place. "I like this place," he pronounced, looking over his bifocals at the clean lines of marble and walnut in the dining room. "Modern but warm."

Ducasse is culinary royalty. The first chef to own three-star Michelin restaurants in three different cities, he operates two dozen restaurants in eight countries, has collaborated on dozens of cookbooks and runs two cooking schools. As Ducasse says, food is now a global business.

Ducasse, like Jamie Oliver or Vikram Vij, is the epitome of a now-familiar species of chef: a savvy entrepreneur who is more celebrity than journeyman labourer, as comfortable in front of a camera as he is at the back of the house. And he is what many culinary students aspire to become: a celebrity, a tastemaker – and an icon for the new religion of food.

The preparation of food has never been more venerated, talked about or outsourced as it is today. Chefs are now major influencers – capable of changing the way we eat, for better and worse. And would-be culinary students want a piece of that action.

Chefs of a certain age remember cooking school as the education of last resort. Not so today.

"Culinary schools across the country are turning students away," says Donna Dooher, interim president and chief executive officer of Restaurants Canada and chef-owner of Mildred's Temple Kitchen in Toronto.

When I met Ducasse, he and his entourage were in Toronto to announce a partnership between his pastry school in Lyons, France, and Toronto's George Brown College. The inaugural year, which begins this spring, will send postgraduate GBC pastry students to Lyons for a semester, to learn from some of the best pastry instructors in France.

Even before GBC announced the Advanced French Patisserie program, the community college had a waiting list of 900 students for its undergraduate pastry programs. Instructors at culinary schools in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto report the same story: Wait-lists are long and enrolment is up.

Culinary students now see themselves as pursuing a vocation, not signing up for something vocational. They want to change the world, and are far better equipped to do so than previous generations – partly because the students are older and better educated than they were when Ducasse, 58, started his career at 16, and partly because it's a reflection of the central role that food now occupies in our culture. Yet there is a curious gap between this new generation's ambitions and the realities of the industry.

In Winnipeg, Red River College spent more than $40-million building the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, which opened in 2013. Its professional baking program has a two-year wait-list; they are considering adding another program back at the old facility they vacated 18 months ago to help meet the demand.

The Culinary Institute of America now operates four campuses (including one in Singapore), and is launching an executive Food Business School this spring for postgrads. Ducasse is also rolling out a postgraduate culinary "MBA" this month to promote executive leadership in chefs.

The Food Network has been a major factor in the increased popularity of culinary schools, but its influence is a double-edged sword: While it fills spots, bringing in much-needed money, it doesn't prepare students for the demands of the trade.

"Hence the massive drop-out once the reality check hits them," says Jeff Gill, a key player in the Red River College expansion in Winnipeg, by e-mail. Gill, a native of Liverpool, remembers getting up at dawn to light the coal stoves at London's Savoy Hotel 40 years ago, as an apprentice. "I can't see many of today's mollycoddled wannabe cooks enduring this."

At Stratford Chefs School in Stratford, Ont., one of Canada's more exclusive and well-respected culinary schools, more than 10 per cent of first-year students dropped out of the program – within the first few weeks. In second year, when the students have to work in teams, the weakest students will be weeded out again. "It's definitely difficult," says Emma Baker, a first-year student, "but it's also one of the most rewarding things I've ever done." The first 12 weeks, she says, felt like a year.

While students fork out $18,000 for George Brown College's 18-month Italian program, and celebrity chefs earn well into the millions, entry-level cooks in Vancouver can expect to be paid between $11 and $12 an hour. This can work out to even less if they are paid by the day. "It's not a sustainable wage," says Tony Minichiello, an instructor at Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver. He notes that many of his students leave Vancouver to find cheaper rent and more lucrative work. Even in Toronto, where the wages are slightly better, there is still a dearth of skilled labour. (One cook, with years of working at Toronto's best restaurants under his belt, once told me his first kitchen job was still his best-paid: He'd started out in a hospital cafeteria.)

This shortage persists, despite the best efforts of culinary schools to expand their programs and graduate more cooks. A 2012 report by the Canadian Tourism Research Institute and the Conference Board of Canada predicts a severe skills shortage in Ontario, with the most significant shortages in the food and beverage services sector: "Shortages could rise to more than 50,200 full-year jobs by 2025."

Students enrolled in cooking school don't necessarily want to work in restaurants when they graduate. There are plenty of other easier and better-paid options available now, from product development and food styling to jobs at grocery stores that have expanded their prepared-food offerings. Many students would rather shed a tear over the many injustices in the food system (food-bank use is at an all-time high; so is Type 2 diabetes and obesity) than weep over a mountain of onion brunoise for soffritto. "They don't necessarily want to pursue a career as a chef," Minichiello says. "They just want food to be part of their lives." He suspects that of the two-thirds of graduates who actually go on to work at a restaurant (as opposed to pursing a related field such as farming or product development), many see it as a stepping stone to something else.

Clearly, we will need both types of cooks to feed us in the coming decades.

"I knew I didn't want to work in a restaurant, but I didn't know what that meant," recalls Miriam Streiman, the 34-year-old owner of Mad Maple Inn near Creemore, Ont. She studied psychology and cultural studies at university before pursuing two culinary diplomas at GBC.

Streiman credits GBC, and one of her instructors, Paul DeCampo, with opening her eyes to many of the issues that have since driven her career choices: In Italy and in DeCampo's Slow Food class, she learned about sustainability, biodiversity, seasonality and the politics of food – values now put to use when she teaches cooking classes, works at the local food bank and taps maple trees with DeCampo's current students. Streiman's students and guests leave Mad Maple with a new understanding of what good food is, and how it is made.

Likewise, at Stratford, Baker says, "we're taught that we have a responsibility, as someone with higher food knowledge."

At the Culinary Institute of America, spokesperson Jeff Levine notes, students can now major in food studies while obtaining a BA in culinary management, learning about the politics of farm labour and the health implications of the obesity crisis. "Students come here wanting to cook in a restaurant and then discover all these other opportunities," Levine says.

This kind of multidisciplinary preparation is necessary for the new food reality we live in. Some 18 million Canadians have a meal out on any given day. For better or worse, our well-being is now intimately tied to the cooks who have the power to shape us, literally and figuratively. Our waistlines and tastes may never be the same.

And with great power comes great responsibility: Chefs, from Ducasse down to first-year cooking-school students, now have a responsibility to educate the general public as well as the next generation of cooks. It doesn't always work, of course. The food industry – cooks included – is responsible for many ills. We diners have probably outsourced too much of our cooking to professionals already. And celebrity cooks aren't always as literate in food issues as they think they are – think Gwyneth Paltrow. But the fact that issues are being talked about at all is cause for optimism.

"We're not just an economic engine any more," Dooher explains. "We're also becoming the gatekeepers of the well-being of the nation. We're responsible for people's health."

Interact with The Globe