Title Option 2- Second Career: Local chef applies passion for pastry at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school
Choosing a career path can be daunting. These days though, there’s no need to stick with just one. Elina Olefirenko started her career path in hospitality before discovering that becoming a trained chef, through Le Cordon Bleu no less, was the path she was destined for.
Ottawa is home to North America’s only Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, so she registered (classes begin this October and again in January, 2019) and threw herself into French-trained culinary studies. If you love baking tools and equipment as much as Chef Elina does, read on.
As a young person growing up in the Ukraine, what were your first experiences with food and cooking?
My grandmother was an amazing cook and baker, and I was always watching her. Maybe I was in her way, but I was participating in the process. The first thing I made was a whipped meringue — and I whipped it with a fork, because at that time we did not have whisks, so we were using substitutions for those tools. We were making lots of things together like jams, homemade tomato juice and paste, cakes, even homemade wine and sparkling water.
When did your interest in food become focused on desserts and pastry?
Food, in general, is a big part of Ukrainian culture. And it was in my family — my parents were in the food industry as well, wholesale suppliers to restaurants. I didn’t know that it would be my career, but it was instilled in me from an early age.
I moved from my parents’ house to study at university in Kiev, and because I was living alone I had no choice to start learning cooking and baking. At university we had practical experience at the professional restaurant kitchen, which was impressive to me and the most exciting part of the whole bachelor program.
But even at that time, I didn’t think that I’d become a pastry chef one day, as my field of study was hospitality with more attention to tourism management than the restaurant industry.
Why did you decide to move to Canada?
I was studying in Kiev, and after graduation I felt that my path of education was still ‘in progress’. I really needed to know more, maybe abroad, and my parents supported me. I had been studying hospitality, with more tourism management focus, and I wasn’t ready to work in a tour firm. I felt that it would not be ‘mine’; I needed something for my creative side, to develop that aspect of my education. So I moved to Vancouver and went to business management; at that time I was already interested in the restaurant industry. At Langara [College, in Vancouver], I combined both the business management and some baking and restaurant work; all the projects I was doing had to do with restaurants. Then, at home, I started baking, and I got a job at a restaurant in Vancouver. I was basically learning by myself.
What made you decide to enrol at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa?
In Ukraine, people dream to go to this school. First of all, I heard about Le Cordon Bleu through the Ukrainian [TV] version of Master Chef. But I was always thinking of the Paris campus, and I don’t speak French. When I found out that there is a campus in Canada, I was very, very excited. I was searching for many schools in Vancouver as well, but was drawn to the prestige of Le Cordon Bleu. The French approach is a bit different — it’s about discipline, organization, perfectionism, strictness of hygiene, and very high standards. And me, being Eastern European, that approach is very close to me — it’s very understandable and very appreciated.
What were your first impressions of the school?
The first day we got all the tools. I was so excited to start. All the chefs were very professional. It was clear that there was a standard of excellence that was front and center of their teachings.
What was your biggest challenge in your training?
Making new things while balancing the reality of time management. Sometimes I think I was going too far with the desire to create something unique and different, while sticking to a schedule.
What is life like for you now as a Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef?
My life is pastry life! Early wake-ups, lots of sacrificing, physically demanding work. But at the same time it’s really rewarding, because you make people a bit happier. And you always progress, because you can be creative and expand the level of your perseverance and patience, becoming stronger every day.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
In September, I start teaching at Algonquin. It’s my goal — I want to teach and share my experiences. I really want to teach — I like the idea of being a consultant where I can create menus for restaurants/pastry shops, teach, train, and launch menus and products. I love teaching and sharing my knowledge.