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second acts

Meeting the new guys: Scott Pohorelic (left), former executive chef at the River Cafe, and Hayato Okamitsu (second from right), former executive chef at Catch, start teaching this fall, alongside veteran chef-profs Thierry Meret (second from left) and Andrew Hewson (right).

Who's stealing the great chefs of Calgary?

Some of the city's top toques are giving up their high-profile restaurant jobs and heading back to school.

Chefs Hayato Okamitsu of Catch, Scott Pohorelic of River Café and Michael Allemeier aren't hitting the books, though. These star chefs have hung up their executive hats to join a new brigade: the instructors in the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) - making it arguably one of the best places in the country to study the culinary arts.

"This is a living classroom - not a 'sage on the stage' approach," says Tom Bornhorst, the department's new dean, of the school's "live operations," which include a restaurant, marketplace and culinary gardens and feed 120,000 people every month.

Other schools tap working chefs to teach. Former On The Twenty chef Michael Olson heads up the culinary program at Niagara College in Southern Ontario, and in Vancouver, former Star Anise chef/owner Julian Bond is in charge of the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.

The earliest SAIT conscripts included Thierry Meret of Le P'tit Table, a popular French bistro, and Andrew Hewson, former Catch chef and owner of the gourmet take-out and meal assembly shop, The Liberated Cook. But the number of notable chefs moving out of their high-pressure kitchens into Calgary's academic world is unusual.

"Chefs are ready to move and I want to be the catharsis for that," says Estuardo Toledo, the new Academic Chair of culinary programs at SAIT. "We are there for the next step of their journey."

Mr. Allemeier, once chef at Vancouver's Bishop's and Calgary's Teatro, left a plum job heading up the kitchens at the Mission Hill Family Estate winery in Kelowna, B.C. to join SAIT last fall. The move, he says, was not about a cushy retirement.

"Anyone who thinks this is easy should try it," says Mr. Allemeier, who spent part of the last semester in charge of the Highwood Dining Room, a fine dining restaurant on campus with a rotating crew of student cooks and wait staff. "Every three weeks we get a new class - it's like opening a new restaurant every three weeks."

Mr. Allemeier, 42, acknowledges he's "stepped out of the main current, slightly." But, despite a stint on Food Network's Cook Like a Chef, he says he never aspired to celebrity chef status.

"We've all got a shelf life," he adds. "There's only so long you can be on and hot and constantly reinventing yourself." And with a wife and two young sons, Mr. Allemeier says it's time for balance.

"I did this as much for myself as my family," he says. "I just had my first summer vacation with my six-year-old."

Mr. Pohorelic, the creative force behind the River Café's local, sustainable menu for 11 years, tells a similar story.

"If you want to be a chef in Calgary, I was in the spot to be - but you can't do it forever," says Mr. Pohorelic, who will begin teaching in September.

Coming off an unprecedented weekend of fly fishing during the busy summer restaurant season, Mr. Pohorelic is getting ready for two weeks of in-depth training for his new job. He's reflective about leaving River Café, the Calgary benchmark for local slow food.

"They talked to me quite some time ago and I spent many sleepless nights weighing all of the pros and cons," he says.

For Mr. Pohorelic, staying on top of the game often meant 80-hour work weeks.

"This job is incredibly physically demanding, and I'm 40 and starting to hurt," he says. "It's also tough on a marriage - you can never, ever, make plans."

Still, it's surprising to see such young chefs give up prestigious kitchens in mid-career. Mr. Okamitsu, who was named the country's top chef last year in the annual Gold Medal Plates competition in Banff, rose through the ranks at Catch to the position of executive chef after his Canadian mentor, chef Michael Noble, left the restaurant in 2004. Five years later, at 35, he's making a career change.

Mr. Okamitsu hopes the more predictable schedule of a teacher may offer more time for career growth, even for future competitions.

"The bottom line is that I still have a passion about food," he says. "I'm not looking at this as a retirement from being a restaurant chef - there are many ways to bring my passion to the public. I want to share with a new generation."

Teaching, Mr. Toledo says, is simply the natural progression of a chef's career. Like Auguste Escoffier or Fernand Point, chefs have a duty to pass on their knowledge and open spaces for new talent to grow.

"It is my humble opinion that there is a talent in Calgary we haven't discovered because they live in the shadows of these bright lights," says Mr. Toledo. "Anyone can cook - a true chef is a mentor, a designer, a teacher and a steward."

Ironically, Michael Noble, the celebrity chef who Mr. Toledo says inspired much of Calgary's current culinary talent, is getting back into the local restaurant scene just as some of his finest protégés are exiting it.

After five years of consulting, Mr. Noble, 48, finally opened his own restaurant, NOtaBLE, in August.

And though Mr. Noble, Canada's first Iron Chef competitor and a two-time Bocuse d'Or challenger, feels mentoring young talent is his most important legacy, he's happy to continue doing it outside the classroom.

"This is my purpose - it's physical and it's long, and hard and tiring - but I measure myself by the people I've taught and inspired," he says as he shows off his new open kitchen, with its wood-fired rotisserie oven and casual locavore vibe, featuring smoky steaks, wild salmon and Sunday heirloom pork porchetta, served family-style.

"This is what Michael Noble has been planning since his apprenticeship in the early eighties," he says of NOtaBLE. "He isn't going to SAIT, but he's here and he's going to do it again. This is where I teach."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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