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Niagara College offers culinary delights in pop-up events

Nagara College culinary student Dollar Thakar (left) and others work in the kitchen to learn pressure under fire.
Nagara College culinary student Dollar Thakar (left) and others work in the kitchen to learn pressure under fire. (Screen grab from Mark Wikobrado’s video footage)

Some changes this year to the Niagara College’s Culinary Services program are benefiting the students as well as the community this school year. 

Hungry diners visited the Daniel J. Patterson Campus’ Benchmark restaurant Friday at noon to pick up their pre- ordered five-course gourmet meal prepared and served by students. 

While each left with their brioche, greenhouse salad, seafood ravioli appetizer, striploin steak main course, pecan tart with vanilla custard and special surprise treat, they were oblivious to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, where second-year students were undergoing their final exam.

Craig Youdale, dean of the School of Culinary Arts, told The Local changes to the program are allowing students to learn more about service, making them immediately ready to step into kitchens.

“Coming out of COVID,” explained Youdale, “we’ve taken a look at our final few weeks for senior culinary students and created as much of a real restaurant atmosphere as possible. Our regional Canadian cuisine course has been converted into a restaurant course. We’ve created a real, pressurized environment.”

Indeed, about 25 students were working together with professors to prepare each part of the meal. As professors Olaf Mertens and Scott Baechler shouted out instructions, in unison they replied “Yes, Chef,” and hit their stations. 

“We heard a lot from industry partners that there were certain elements from our students that we knew we had a hard time re-creating in school,” Youdale said. “Creating pressure, a sense of urgency, and being able to create a volume, not just a small amount. And service techniques, too.”

So, when September rolled around, they announced that Benchmark wouldn’t run as usual. Instead, their students would focus on pop-up and banquet style events, ones where they would be able to learn all aspects of preparing and serving food in a situation more akin to what they would experience post-graduation.

“We needed to create a real environment for our students,” he continued, “so when they leave here there’s less of a gap. The industry told us they were really great at cooking, but they needed exposure to that high-pressure line environment. We’re closing that gap with this.”

Students in the culinary program now are immersed in a number of different situations, varying from Friday’s takeout event to pop-up restaurants, stand-up receptions, banquets, lunches and dinners. For the students, it’s less about the food and more about the service techniques. 

“Each of those situations requires a different set-up, different organization, different communication,” Youdale added. “We want them to learn as broad an amount as possible. We want them to be what we call ‘Saturday night ready’. That way when they go into the restaurant for real, they are ready for anything.”

Student Dollar Thakar, originally from India, was thriving under pressure Friday.

“Everybody in my class is very passionate and knowledgeable after two years in the program,” said Dollar. “The best part of this course is the collaboration between each other. Today I’m on the mains, and another student helped me learn what to do. Next time someone else will be on the mains, and I will help them. We’ve all been working together from the very first day.”

He continued, “This experience gives us a bigger picture of how the industry will be. It’s a good kind of pressure. When we go into the industry and start working for a chef, this will definitely help us in that regard.”

Baechler explained that the students learned how to prepare Friday’s menu items in their first year of study without being graded on their progress. Then they spent five weeks working through the different stations learning how to prepare each element of the meal.

“It’s a huge change,” Baechler said Friday. “We listened to our students, who told us that second year was too similar to first year. This is our first semester doing this. I’m really excited about the potential of this program for the future.”

Youdale adds that the changes to Niagara’s program are unique amongst Ontario colleges. 

“Every college has been battling with how to create a real environment for all of their students,” he said. “This particular set-up gives every student a chance to experience the same challenges. This is just in the beta process, too. We’re really aiming to make this our food service model.”

And part of that model includes serving the less fortunate in the community. In 2021, more than 3,000 meals were cooked, packaged and delivered to those in need throughout Niagara’s fall term as part of their Feed the Community initiative.

Friday’s pop-up takeout event sold out even before the college had a chance to advertise it. And it was delicious. 

If you missed it, don’t fret. The next pop-up will be the first of a series of five International Cafe and Bake Shop events to take place next month. Between Dec. 7 and 14, students in the culinary program will be preparing and serving treats inspired by the cuisine of Kuwait, Japan, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Sweden and Sri Lanka. 

Visit NC Culinary Services on Facebook and other social media to be in the loop.