I completed the Professional Cook Level 1 at Thompson Rivers University in 2014. Touring through VIU’s kitchen and seeing the mass of people back there, I was shocked. My program was quite small, with only about 30 students enrolled. In this kitchen, nearly 60 aspiring chefs mulled about in their respective roles. I was amazed to see the organization of the students in different stations: baking; pastries and desserts; garde-manger; soups, stocks, sauces; meat cutting; and à la carte. 

VIU’s Professional Cook (PC) program has been around for 40 years. Jason Lloyd is the new chair of the Culinary Arts program at VIU Nanaimo Campus; he graduated from VIU’s culinary program the same year that Debbie Shore became the chair, and he replaced her as the chair in December 2018. 

“I’ve always had a desire to teach throughout my career,” Lloyd said. “I modeled my style as a leader in the kitchen to always be open to sharing my knowledge and teaching up-and-coming cooks. Coming to VIU as an alumni and working for the program I trained in seemed like a natural fit.” It also felt like full circle for him to come in just as the program’s chair, Shore, was leaving. 

After Lloyd graduated in 1993, he continued his training at Vancouver Culinary College (VCC). He said he “[feels] extremely fortunate to have learned from some of the best chefs that Canada has ever known.”

Lloyd began his chef career in Vancouver at the Pan Pacific Hotel. He also worked at The Creek Restaurant on Granville Island, the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, and Terminal City Club. He talked about how the experience of working in a large hotel (like the Pan Pacific) can propel students forward in their culinary careers because of the variety of chefs they can learn and draw inspiration from. Hotel work has higher stakes than small restaurants and teaches new chefs speed and efficiency. 

A tray of buns waiting for oven time

VCC has an incredible team of full-time instructors from around the world. VIU has five full-time instructors and a handful who are part-time. Lloyd has been instructing at VIU since 2011.

Lloyd has loved instructing over the last eight years. He doesn’t have a favourite area to teach in, but has enjoyed the variety of hopping from station to station and from Nanaimo to Cowichan to Sechelt. “It is extremely rewarding to see the students through the first steps in their careers, from orientation to convocation. Seeing our students overcome challenges, develop that work ethic, learn new skills, then step up to shake your hand after week 42 is what makes me happy to be here.” 

Student completion rate has been increasing recently. Just a few years ago, the program saw a slight drop in registration, but their classes have been filled consistently since. About 90 percent of students complete the Professional Cook 1 (PC1) and 75 percent complete PC2. PC1 is a 28 week program that starts in September and ends in April. If students would like to go on to PC2, they must complete two months of workplace hours before returning in the fall. PC2 is a 14 week diploma in which students must also complete workplace hours at the end of the program to receive full credits. Workplace hours are usually paid jobs where a supervisor logs the chef’s hours and signs off on their completion and improvement over the course of their employment. In Nanaimo, students have often worked at The Nest Bistro, Earl’s, The Keg, or Cactus Club. 

Once students have completed their PC2, they can go on to do PC3 and then to their Red Seal if they so desire. “The big thing to remember,” Lloyd said, “is 5000 workplace hours are required to complete your Red Seal, which is approximately three full years of work.” The Red Seal sets common standards to assess the skills of tradespeople across Canada. VIU only sees a handful of students go on to complete their Red Seal after graduating from the program.

The Industry Training Authority (ITA) is where all the trades programs get their resources and curriculum from. They must complete ITA requirements to graduate, and achieve at least a passing grade of 70 percent in each area (pastries, soups, etc.) to move forward. There is still a lot of room for creativity beyond the curriculum; students can begin to let their imaginations run wild once they’ve mastered things like knife skills and basic cooking techniques. 

Two baking students evaluate their pastries

Lloyd said that only three or four students come into the program with culinary experience; many of them are quite “green” when it comes to cooking. They come as clean slates with a passion for food and learning new skills. Many students have a desire to open their own restaurant—the PC2 program has mandatory classes in opening a new restaurant and restaurant management. Lloyd explained that all students come to the program with their own idea of what they’d like to do when they graduate. There isn’t really a rubrik, so students are encouraged to pursue what serves them best. Lloyd offered some ideas: “Restaurants, hotels, care homes, camps, private chefs, consultants, food styling, catering, cruise ships, adventure blogging, YouTube. I mean, the list goes on and on.”

A growing equality in gender has also been seen in the recent classes. In the past, enrollment has consisted mostly of men obtaining a culinary education; the classes this year are only about 65 percent male. There are also a number of reserved spots for international and Indigenous students to make sure there is room for a variety of demographics in the program. “There was definitely a dip in our program enrollment a few years ago, but recently we have done quite well in all areas. There is still some room left for our January and February 2020 intakes.” 

After PC1 graduation this year, students will be invited to Belgium for a tour of Callebaut Chocolate and Paris to dive deep into French bread making. Last year, some students went to Italy to immerse themselves in the food and wine culture. 

The culinary students don’t just run the cafeteria; in fact, a lot of the service is run by VIU Food Services through Ancillaries. The students create the more elaborate pastries out front, the intricate salads, and a la carte (the stir-fries, pastas, etc). The students have the opportunity to master a dish and then it’s added to the Discovery Room Restaurant’s menu for that week. The Discovery Room has been reviewed in the Times Colonist as a place that “inspire[s] students to reach gastronomic heights.”

VIU’s kitchen does their best to be aware and teach others to be aware of how to accommodate people’s allergies and intolerances. Students have lessons about allergy information, components, and hidden ingredients. They have a daily briefing before lunch and dinner service to really press how important it is to prevent cross-contamination.  

“To succeed in the industry,” Lloyd said, “students must focus on life skills and professionalism, above and beyond cooking skills. If a student can leave our program and represent VIU as a valued employee who is willing to contribute to success, we feel as though our time with the students has been well spent.”

Baking student dusts sugar on a fresh pastry

Obviously the culture of food is forever evolving, and people eat differently around the world. Lloyd calls Vancouver Island the “Canadian Riviera.” He said “how lucky we are to have a climate that is conducive to year-round outdoor activities; farming, wineries, local food, and beverage producers and, of course, seafood.”

ITA is only for trades in BC, but in 2020 there will be some changes to the program, as ITA harmonizes with the nationwide Professional Cook program. Lloyd said, “each year [is] a living and maturing entity.” He’s looking forward to the additions and upgrades to the program, even though it’s functioning quite successfully right now. “What I find about our industry is that everyone has to work together and in a positive manner to make things work for every constituent.” 

“Our industry is always changing, and trends do come and go,” Lloyd said, “Last year the move to more plant-based protein hit and we can expect the ITA curriculum to reflect this change by September 2020. I always tell students that they are the future influencers of what we will eat. If they find innovative and positive ways to encourage customers to make ethical choices in restaurant and retail, the market will change eventually. Change is a long game in our industry and ethics, health, and environmental choices will shape our future.”

Food will continue to evolve, and it’s so important to remember the work, effort, passion, and creativity that go into making it. It’s so easy to treat food like it’s just fuel to get us through the day, but there are faces behind every meal, especially at VIU Culinary.