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COLUMN: Aspiring chefs bear down, put skills to the test

Georgian College hosted annual qualifier for upcoming Skills Ontario competition; 'Each year I’m amazed at the young cooks and the skills and passion they bring to the table,' says food columnist

“One learns from books and example only that certain things can be done. Actual learning requires that you do those things.” — Frank Herbert

To be successful in any trade requires you to study and develop specific set of skills. In order to excel as a tradesperson, one must continually seek to improve on your knowledge and test your capabilities.

Whether it's welding, carpentry, hairdressing or culinary arts, the same grit, focus and determination are required.

Many of us get our first taste of what will become a future career in high school. The shop classes, kitchens and aesthetics labs become a place of self-discovery and give us the opportunity to get our hands on what potentially can become a lucrative and fulfilling career.

The skilled teachers and mentors in our schools help guide young minds to see what possibilities are out there in the skilled trade sector.

Our world needs tradespeople, now more than ever. With changing demographics and increased demands, there are more and more skilled trade positions opening everyday and the future is bright for those who choose this path.

My path led me to culinary arts. I remember the first time I thought maybe I could cook as a profession. It was in my Grade 7 home economics class. This class was comprised of two parts: cooking and sewing. I mean I managed to sew a few buttons and eventually finished the stuffed animal project, but what I really excelled at was the cooking! Writing a menu, preparing a shopping list, cooking the meal. It became evident very quickly that I had found a passion.

I was lucky enough to have several fantastic mentors along my path to becoming a chef and a teacher. Without their willingness to share knowledge, give guidance and an encouraging push when I needed it, I would not be where I am now.

One of these mentors was chef David Hawey. He was one of my instructors at Fleming College and he introduced me to my first Skills Ontario Competition in 2001. The Skills Ontario Competition is an opportunity for top students to demonstrate their skills and to see if they have what it takes to be the best of the best in their field.

Held over the course of two and a half days with spectators that include educators, family, friends and prospective employers, it's an amazing showcase of our homegrown talent. Winners are awarded with gold, silver or bronze medals and the opportunity to compete at the Skills Canada national competition. From there, competitors could be headed to a WorldSkills Competition.

As well as the contests, the Skills Ontario Competition has several components, including the Career Exploration Showcase, the Young Women's Conference, the First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) Conference, and the closing ceremonies.

It's an amazing experience and one that I keep with me 22 years later. With Chef Dave’s coaching, I was able to come home with a silver medal that year and a better sense that I was on the right path.

Over the years, I’ve been able to continue to be a part of the Skills Ontario experience. Here at Georgian College in Barrie, we host the annual qualifier contest. In the last decade, I have been involved as a provincial judge, qualifier judge, contest support and as the technical chair for our culinary contest.

Each year I’m amazed at the young cooks and the skills and passion they bring to the table. This year was no exception.

Bright and early on Saturday, April 1, we hosted our 2023 qualifying competition at Georgian College. We had contests in welding, audio/visual arts, cabinetry/carpentry and, of course, culinary.

Nine hopeful chefs entered our kitchens with hopes of claiming a spot at the provincial contest.

With the clock set, production plans posted and the judges ready they set to task writing out menus, showcasing knife skills and preparing a plated meal for three.

The menu had to include:

* Hamburger with a pickled garnish and a mayonnaise-based sauce
* Fresh salad with a classic French vinaigrette
* Chocolate brownie with a fruit sauce and garnish.

The day was long and the cooks worked with a singular focus. It was really inspiring to watch them work.

What really struck me was the level of support and encouragement that each had received from their mentors. The practice and preparedness showed in the work that each did that day. You never know how you will preform under stress and from experience I can tell you that competing in this contest is stressful for a young cook.

As the clock ran down and the plates were dropped, and courses complete the relief was easily seen in their eyes. They left our judges with the difficult task of scoring and tallying all the work done and deciding who would move forward.

At the end of each contest, a general feedback session is held. This is an opportunity for the cook, the coaches and family to hear feedback and ask questions directly from the judges. It's during these sessions that a cook can really gain insight and find the key to improvements.

With score cards completed we had our winners. Moving on to the provincials for 2023 are:
1st place — James Forth-Hill (Upper Grand District School Board)
2nd place — Emma Parker (Upper Grand District School Board)
3rd place – Taurin Almas (Bluewater District School Board)
4th place – Jacob Good (Simcoe County District School Board)

I wish the best of luck to each of our winners in their next step! The Skills Ontario provincial contest will be held on May 1-3 at the Toronto Congress Centre and is open to the public.

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Daniel Clements

About the Author: Daniel Clements

In his bi-weekly Chef's Table column, Daniel will be looking at everything from local crops and trends in the business to seasonal delights and the local restaurant scene
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