COLIN MCCONNELL/torstar news service
The budding chefs crowd the lobby at George Brown College, listening to hip-hop as they wait for orientation to begin.
They have not yet purchased the lily-white lab coats and clamshell chef hats, their uniform for the rest of the semester.
"How many people watch the Food Network?" asks head chef John Higgins.
Almost half raise their hands.
Forget that fluff.
"This is a reality show," he says. "This is George Brown culinary school and we’re in the business of teaching you cooking."
The Food Network, kitchen-related reality TV shows and celebrity chefs have made the culinary arts sexy. As chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson have found fame making pretty plates for the TV cameras, enrolment in cooking programs has risen. George Brown’s chef school enrolment has soared 35 per cent in the past four years.
The boom is also happening in the United States. In 1996, there were 269 career cooking schools and 154 recreational cooking schools, according to Shaw Guide’s The Guide to Cooking Schools. By 2006, those numbers had risen to 446 and 503, respectively.
George Brown expects enrolment will increase by another 50 per cent by 2010, as demand for chefs grows in Canada. It’s a trend fuelled by baby boomers, who have become more discriminating in their food tastes and demanding better prepared cuisine.
Chef school graduates are being snapped up to work in Northern Ontario, cruise ships and in the chronically under-manpowered Alberta.
The people entering the profession are younger and hipper. The network has enticed women, who can find role models in the likes of Rachael Ray and Everyday Italian’s Giada De Laurentiis. The college boasts a near 50/50 split between the sexes, in an occupation where most of the top-tier chefs are men.
But for every camera-savvy culinary role model, there are millions of cafeteria line cooks. Drudgery and long hours don’t make for good TV.
"You’re all going to want to be Jamie Olivers," says John Walker, the dean of the hospitality and tourism faculty at George Brown, as he addresses his class. "That will end by the first week. You'll be cutting yourself and burning your sauces."
Initially, few respect what a tough job being a cook is. Long hours, minimal wages and high pressure.
"The Hollywood gets knocked out of you quickly," says David Buchanan, director of the Culinary Arts School of Ontario in Mississauga. The private school is devoted to teaching foodies — a rising class of amateur gourmands — and wannabe chefs.
In school "you start off with basic knife skills, chopping onions and carrots until your fingers start to bleed."
Then you graduate to stocks.
Higgins is happy that his students enter the school excited about cooking, but criticizes the TV shows for sacrificing the most important part of food — taste — for the pretty plate.
"It’s not entertainment," he chides. "You're selling something."