Cooking up chef school to rival the best

Apprentice cooks are in for a shock when they step into the new kitchen at Red Deer College this fall. They’ll have just a short time to savour the moment before their new instructor puts them to work.

Red Deer College’s new instructor in the apprentice cooks program

Red Deer College’s new instructor in the apprentice cooks program

Apprentice cooks are in for a shock when they step into the new kitchen at Red Deer College this fall. They’ll have just a short time to savour the moment before their new instructor puts them to work.

Chef Garnett Schoettler doesn’t believe in berating or belittling his underlings. But he will certainly let them know what he and their employers expect from fledgling cooks before they ever get to peer inside the college’s spanking new ovens or lay a stone across its gleaming new collection of Henkel knives.

While apprentice cooks were sharpening their skills at work over the last four months, the college was performing a $2-million makeover on its cooking and hospitality facilities, creating a kitchen and dining room area that significantly raises the bar for competing schools.

“I can’t see why anyone from Red Deer would want to got to SAIT when this is here,” said Red Deer-raised Schoettler, a Red Seal chef and Certified Chef de Cuisine who learned the basics in Calgary and then started honing his skills in Zurich before heading back to North America to work at hotels and resorts in Kansas City, Calgary and Harrison Hot Springs, B.C.

One visiting chef has commented that the new kitchen compares favourably with the best kitchens available to New York’s Culinary Institute of America, said Bob Van Someren, newly-appointed head of the Red Deer College’s hospitality and tourism management department, part of the Donald School of Business.

Now in its seventh year, the cook apprentice program had been run from a pair of modulars just west of the main building and connected to the converted classroom that had served as the Cornerstone Dining Room, said Doug Sharp, director of facilities for the program.

“It was almost an embarrassment,” said Sharp.

From its non-skid floor up, the new kitchen is spacious and bright — a symphony of stainless steel and accented in chrome. Its elaborate array of equipment includes fully programmable Rational Combi ovens, originally purchased for the World Skills competition held in Calgary in late 2009 and early 2010.

The ovens are easily the most costly equipment in the kitchen, so it was a tremendous bonus to get them in new condition and yet at a reduced cost after the competitions had finished, said Van Someren.

He and his team are as proud of their new chef as they are of the kitchen in which Schoettler will share his knowledge of cooking, budgeting and choreographing the dozens of students who will soon be working elbow-to-elbow among the grills, fryers, ovens and gas ranges.

Cooking in a commercial kitchen really is a sort of dance, in which a false move can have disastrous consequences including burns, cuts, bruises and ruined dinners, said Schoettler.

Coming back from vacation is one of the trickier times in the life of a commercial cook, because it takes a while to get back into rhythm, he said.

Schoettler stood out from among the candidates interviewed for the post in part because of his cutting-edge knowledge of dining trends and his ability to see the industry on a bigger scale, said Van Someren.

The hiring team was attracted to Schoettler’s philosophy around eating healthy, locally produced foods and making environmentally conscious choices to promote sustainability of resources and environment.

The industry has a great need for cooks who have the ambition and ability to be good leaders and managers, said Schoettler.

“It’s not just about the cooking. It’s about the total management of all the staff,” he said. Getting there includes being willing to help out wherever possible, whether that means covering for someone who is sick or late or taking a turn washing dishes or fixing the cardboard compacter.

“It’s a very demanding job, but it’s also exciting and it gives you such satisfaction at the end of the day.”

After years of working long hours, sometimes starting at 3 a.m., Schoettler said he is looking forward to a new career path as an instructor.

“At this stage of my life, I’m looking for somewhere where I can still continue to do what I love and be home to help my kids with their homework.”

Red Deer College’s cook apprentice program is unique in that instead of taking a block of weeks off work, students attend classes one day per week while employed in a kitchen where they are supervised by a qualified chef, said Van Someren.

Cook apprentice classes run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, leaving the kitchen open for other courses, including classes for the hospitality students, on other days, said Sharp. With more space and better facilities, the college is now looking at opportunities to put on more short-term programs during the times when it is not being used for the cook apprenticeship program, he said.

Spaces are still available for new students in the cook apprentice program this fall, said Van Someren. Applicants need a Grade 9 education, one year of commercial experience and must be employed in a kitchen with a qualified chef, he said.