The secret star of the Canadian Culinary championships isn’t a visiting chef or highly lauded food writer.
It’s Okanagan College.
James Chatto, head judge of the Gold Plates competition that was held in Kelowna last weekend, called the college the organizing comitttee’s “ace in the hole” and a significant factor in the decision to extend the contract for the competition in Kelowna another five years.
“We knew coming in here that the college was going to be a huge resource,” said Chatto, as the judges and participants rolled into town.
“We rely on the students and the instructors for a great many things we do.”
Assisting Canada’s Top 11 chefs in all they do is a significant burden to bear for students who are just embarking on their careers.
But it’s one they rise to over and over again.
OC culinary manager, chef Bernard Casavant, has been leading the students to the heart of the competition for the last two years, and he said it’s not just competing chefs who are benefiting from the relationship.
“Some of the students (heading into the competition) didn’t understand why they were being asked to do this, but (Friday) night, they worked until 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m. and the next day they rushed early in saying, ‘That was unbelievable,’” he said.
“They weren’t dragging themselves in, they were energized.”
And why wouldn’t you be? he said.
These competing chefs represent the best in Canadian cuisine.
It’s not only students who come out of the experience changed. Kelowna, argued OC president Jim Hamilton, benefits greatly.
“It’s a great opportunity for the people who are visiting and who live here, to see how important an event this is…and it’s wonderful for the community because it really puts Kelowna even more on the map than it already is as a centre of wine and tourism,” he said.
It’s also creating an impetus to change the existing facilities.
“An event of this magnitude adds credibility to the argument some of us are making that this is the new stage and the new phase of what needs to be here in the valley,” he said.
“We’ve run a few new programs and we continue to put a lot of emphasis on (culinary arts). The biggest challenge for us now is one of place.”
Pointing to the facility being used by the competing chefs for the black box competition, Hamilton said that things are getting a bit crowded and that’s an issue he and others are taking seriously.
“This morning I was involved in a meeting where we looked at what does that next step look like? and how do we make it happen?” he said.
They already know it will take money and a physical space, but what, how and when it comes together remains to be seen.
What’s clear is that Hamilton envisions something on a far grander scale than what currently exists.
“We have the numbers in students and we have industry partners who want us to step it up to international standards,” he said. “But we’re moving slowly because we don’t want to build something that’s good enough. We want to build something that’s par with what’s happening in the industry and the community…It’s going to be a big project.”