The Food Network has a lot to answer for. In the early 1970s, chef school was less about finding a vocation than a last resort. But just like the TV drama ER produced an almost immediate spike in medical-school applications in the 1990s, the first decade of this century has turned nearly everyone - even my father-in-law, who made it to middle age without ever boiling water for pasta - into an aspiring chef.
The change is palpable at George Brown College: Enrolment in the Chef School has doubled over the past six years. In 2007, more than 6,500 applicants competed for 1,500 spots. Would-be chefs now arrive at George Brown steeped in the glamour and drama of the Food Network; ambitious and passionate, they dream of being the next Jamie Oliver.
For the past few years, though, 300 Adelaide St. E. has felt more like the set for an episode of Extreme Makeover as the woefully outdated facilities underwent a $20-million renovation.
Meanwhile, John Higgins, director of the Chef School, and his boss, John Walker, dean of the faculty of hospitality and tourism, set about the Herculean task of bringing the curriculum - and the faculty - into the 21st century, recruiting industry chefs and launching and expanding "externship" programs in Italy, India and Panama.
The stunning results of their labours were unveiled this week. Former students barely recognized the place, which is now sleek and open concept, with camera-ready kitchens and air-conditioned pastry labs. Most exciting of all, at least for the city's stomachs, is the launch of The Chefs' House at 215 King St. E.
Donna Dooher, the veteran restaurateur of Mildred Pierce who is getting ready to open Mildred's Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village, calls it "the jewel in the crown of Canada's foremost culinary institute."
And a jewel it is. Situated a block away from the hospitality campus in a 19th-century brick building, The Chefs' House opens its state-of-the-art restaurant to the public on Tuesday. Plasma TV screens broadcast scenes from the open kitchen onto the street and into the 70-seat dining room. Mr. Walker hopes those televisions and windows will turn it into a city landmark - like a culinary CITY-TV.
But for the logos on the chef jackets (and the occasional misstep of a well-meaning but inexperienced waiter), you'd never guess the restaurant is part of an institution or that the restaurant's main purpose is to act as a training ground for the country's next generation of chefs and waiters. It's an ambitious enterprise: Cooking students will make everything from scratch, from the bread that first arrives on the table to the ice cream and truffles that might end the meal.
They will get some help, though, not only from Mr. Higgins himself (who once led the kitchen army at the King Edward Hotel) and a crackerjack team of veteran chefs de cuisine, but also from visiting celebrities.
At a fundraising event last Tuesday evening, passersby stopped to gawk at guest chef Marc Thuet as he plated a rabbit and venison terrine with truffled cress seedlings. Mr. Thuet later told the packed house that he wished he could cook there every night - the kitchen was much nicer than his own. Michael Stadtlander and Jamie Kennedy also made appearances in the kitchen and Mr. Higgins is currently talking to Vancouver's Vikram Vij about a visit soon.
"We plan to feature a different guest chef every week," Mr. Higgins says.
Originally, the kitchen was going to be at the back of the house, but Mr. Higgins persuaded the designers to give it a street presence. "The students are front and centre; there are no hidden sins," he says in a broad Glaswegian brogue.
Mr. Walker and Mr. Higgins hope The Chefs' House will boast the cachet of New York's James Beard House, acting not only as a destination for celebrity chefs from across the country but as an arbiter of quality for everything food-related.
The James Beard Awards have been called the Oscars of the food world; Mr. Higgins hopes one day to launch a similar awards program for Canada. There's even talk of a street festival in 2010.
"We want The Chefs' House to be a food community, not just a restaurant," says Mr. Walker, the former chef of Stratford's Rundles Restaurant.
Industry types hope The Chefs' House, and the expanding hospitality program, will help solve a growing labour shortage: It is estimated that more than 300,000 new professionals will be needed in Canada by 2015.
And me? I'm just looking forward to a taste of the next generation of chefs.
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