How the pandemic changed culinary schools
Eating & Drinking

How the pandemic changed culinary schools

When the Covid pandemic hit, no one could have imagined how it would affect everyday life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the restaurant business. Two long years of lockdowns and health protocols called for restaurateurs to reimagine their enterprises — or face the prospect of closing. Meanwhile, young chefs attending culinary school have questioned their aspirations. But it’s not all doom and gloom; in reality, a new vision of the future of food is emerging.

Cory Haskins, coordinator of the Culinary Management program at Algonquin College, observed a drop in applications. This was in part because foreign students could not enter Canada, but news of kitchens closing also resulted in all potential students asking themselves whether cheffing was a wise career choice. “Enrolment numbers were down across the board,” says Haskins.

However, Haskins says that as of fall 2021 there was light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Many career chefs had left the labour market, leaving room for new cooks to test their chops. “We had more job opportunities for our students than we’ve ever had,” Haskins says. Omicron resulted in another pause for some students, but it was short-lived.

In light of industry adaptations to the pandemic, Haskins and his team came up with additions to their curriculum to account for new revenue streams being adopted by the industry – some of which appear to be here to stay. Haskins believes that fine dining won’t be restricted to brick-and-mortar establishments. While there will always be clients who want the experience of dining out with all the bells and whistles, there’s now a substantial number who have embraced the idea of calling in an order for an special meal that they can take home. “Some of [our students] have that dream of opening a fine dining restaurant,” says Haskins, “but increased operating costs could mean a reduction in the number of high end establishments.”

The next generation of chefs know that there’s a revolution underway. A scarcity of chefs means wages will be higher — the days of sweating it out in a kitchen overseen by the Gordon Ramsays of the world will be gone. Newcomers want better pay, better conditions, and better hours. They can also see new opportunities when it comes to using their skills.

When asked if this might be a positive outcome of the pandemic, Haskins responds, “In a strange way, yes. It’s been a bit of a reckoning.”

One such newcomer is Connie Cheung, who will graduate from Algonquin’s Culinary Management program this spring. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music performance from the University of Ottawa in 2020; when the pandemic hit and in-person learning came to a halt, she took up baking. “It was a good time to pursue another interest,” she says. Employed by the Beckta Group and the NAC’s One Elgin since April 2021, Cheung looks toward a future that will allow her to keep learning under her mentors with the eventual goal of opening her own place.

Connie Cheung, left, and Wilson Pearl began courses in Algonquin College’s culinary management department in late 2020.

Similarly, Wilson Pearl didn’t set out to work in the food business. His original plan was to study graphic design or music production. But, he says, “Covid happened and I decided to wait to do school.” He saw the pause as an opportunity to develop a new-found interest in cooking and enrolled in Algonquin’s one-year culinary skills program. “It’s a great time to get into the industry.”

On the other hand, Anna St-Amour always wanted to be a chef. She completed a co-op in high school for six months and spent days peeling potatoes. Undeterred, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and has come to realize that she has plenty of options. “I think the pandemic has shown me that I can do catering or go into someone’s home and cook for them in their own kitchen,” she says.

Le Cordon Bleu also saw a massive drop in enrollment when borders were shut to international students, who usually represent 60 per cent of attendees. Some of these spots were taken by Canadians — including the likes of lawyers, engineers, and accountants.

“Because of the pandemic, many people decided they wanted to learn how to cook because they were stuck at home and had nothing to do,” says Chef Thierry LeBaut of Le Cordon Bleu. He observes that some will likely open their own businesses. He calls the changes in the student body over two years nothing short of incredible. Even if those lawyers and accountants don’t quit their careers, they will have learned a lot about the art of cooking. LeBaut maintains that people appreciate food more when they make it themselves, and will be more discerning as customers when they do eat out.

Anna St-Amour, left, and Se Hwan Kim are students at Le Cordon Bleu.

Transformations underway in both schools and restaurants are resulting in employees having more power, says Nathalie Gelineau, senior marketing manager with Le Cordon Bleu. The school has a long list of restaurants eager to hire graduates. “The restaurants need to start adapting to what their employees are asking for,” says Gelineau. “Some are contacting us to ask what they need to offer.”

LeBaut believes that one solution for Canada’s shortage of kitchen staff is to offer work post-graduate work permits to international students studying at registered colleges, which would allow international students to stay when they graduate. “It’s a problem,” he says. “We train them here. They go back to their home country to find a job.”

Due to the pandemic, Se Hwan Kim, who is in his first semester at Le Cordon Bleu, had to put his plans on hold for two years. “Coming here was really a dream come true,” he says. And he’d like to explore his options in Canada after he graduates rather than returning immediately to his native Korea. As many economists will argue, increased immigration means an increase in a country’s overall wealth.

There’s no doubt that further adaptation on the part of the food business will happen. Chefs, instructors, and restaurateurs will need to continue to be innovative as we enter a new normal.