In the culinary world the Free Desk Here campaign already exists in the form of apprenticeship. With a small shift we could rebrand it as the Free Spot At The Stove Here campaign. Until very recently, it was the most popular way to gain culinary training in Canada. Most senior leaders and educators in our industry were professionally developed in this system. My culinary apprenticeship began in 1985 and I finished (if there is such a thing) when I passed my Red Seal trade certification exam in 1994. It took me 9 years (I didn’t officially register until 1990) but generally averages 4 to 5 years. By today’s standards, that’s a long time learning. Educationally speaking, it’s the equivalent time period to complete an undergraduate degree (or masters in my case). I don’t regret a second of that time. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m proud of it and the substance it gave my professional life. At the 8 year mark I began to feel accomplished, one of the under represented benefits of maintaining a long-term commitment to a career practice. I had no trouble keeping my commitment, I simply showed up at the stove daily.
To become an apprentice a young person first needs to find a spot at the stove working under a trade qualified industry member. The path an apprentice crafts is unique and becomes their professional DNA. Assuming responsibility for this from the outset is inherently empowering. A young person identifies a master, a chef, who will inspire and teach them. More important, the young person must be teachable, possessing enough humility to know what they don’t know. The demands on the teacher are no less formidable. In conveying their knowledge they not only assume responsibility for the young person but contribute to the health of the community overall. Done in the spirit of generosity, the young person gains in much larger measure. A young person agrees to stay long enough to gain sign-off on skills acquisition. The relationship between apprentice and master is expressed in years, not weeks. I spent 5 of my 9 years in one kitchen where the cooking was exquisite, the learning rigorous, and my rise through the stations steady and progressive. It’s a practice that runs counter to the largely prescribed internships that full-time culinary programs offer in its place.
I landed, out of McMaster University, in the kitchen of L’Escargot, at the time the best French restaurant in Hamilton, owned and operated by André Donnet, a Swiss-French chef of substantial talent. Finding André was pure magic. I was aided in this search by the owner of a reputable catering company in Hamilton, and one of my English professors who knew my cooking talents and encouraged my pursuit. But I did begin this journey and enter this relationship on my own, by choice, not assignment. That is no small point and one of the residual benefits of apprenticeship. Finding teachers is an act of self-determination.
I could not know then just how vitally important that first step in the journey would be. So much of it paved the way for what followed. André possessed a contagious enthusiasm for his profession, spectacular given that at the time he was 30 years on the line. I knew from the start that passion and enthusiasm could flourish, not wither, under times influence. After L’Escargot, my training continued in French inspired fine dining and, save for a very brief foray into the realm of hotels, remained focused on chef-owned restaurants. I was drawn to entrepreneurs and the fluidity and intense learning found in small restaurant kitchens.
I was lucky because André had two daughters and this inhibited him from placing professional limitations on me as a woman. He gifted me a book on the great chefs of France and 5 years later I found myself staging in the kitchen with one of the Michelin Two Star chefs featured in the book. I sent him a postcard from the south of France thanking him and letting him know that dreams well nurtured do come true. His belief in me, at such an early and impressionable stage, gave me the security to dream big.
I’ll disrupt all this romanticism to admit that there were some very challenging chefs who I trained with during those 9-years. But fundamentally, I knew my place and had little difficulty assuming the junior role. My commitment to quality learning allowed me to thrive, spared me excessive personal misery, and sustained my forward momentum. I chose teachers with excellent reputations, particularly in French cooking. The character of the chef had little bearing on the skills I needed to acquire. I developed a thick skin - I didn’t take a lot of stuff too personally. It was a different time and most quality kitchens functioned in a rigid, military-like fashion. I had few female companions. I didn’t care because I was building my repertoire (and my backbone).
In 9 years, it’s fair to say that I too had my own personal and professional challenges but I maintained a commitment to learning new things and when I sensed that the learning was complete, I looked for the next teacher. I assumed responsibility for my skills inventory. I was aided in this task by having to document skills acquisition for the Ministry of Training in a small booklet that marked my progress. One of the requisites of apprenticeship is completing 2,260 hours of work before being eligible to write trade papers designating professional certification.
The Free Spot At The Stove Here is not an entirely accurate campaign since culinary apprenticeship is a paid/subsidized form of education. It’s an ancient system, allowing a registered apprentice to earn while learning: collecting EI while in school and being paid while at work. Industry members overseeing apprentices also gain a tax credit benefit for the transference of knowledge. Most apprentices must work. Like me, they lacked education savings funds. Earning a regular wage, no matter how pithy, made the time required to complete my culinary education less anxious. Not enough can be said about the satisfaction and benefits of assuming financial responsibility for education.
Academic obligations are also a part of serving an apprenticeship. I always loved being in school but, as it related to cooking, knew real substance was to be found standing at a stove. I chose an academic program that maximized my time in industry. I also chose a program that focused on the operation of small, chef-owned and operated restaurants, a program designed to create both competent chefs and inspire entrepreneurism. I enrolled at the Stratford Chefs School and spent 8 months total (2 x 4 month periods) over 2-years in school and the remaining 16 months in a professional kitchen.
One of the greatest rewards for apprenticing in excellent and successful restaurants with reputable chefs are the educational opportunities, or stages as they are formally known, vetted out as compensation for hard work and loyalty. Staging is a microcosm of apprenticeship and involves: an identifiable professional master (often with an international reputation), often international travel, a personal savings account cobbled together from apprentice wages, and business support (lieu time or financial backing). Generally speaking a stage runs roughly 6 weeks or longer. It is by nature an infrequent undertaking because it involves complex arrangements and is expensive (a stagiaire is not paid by the host restaurant). The emphasis again is on career and skill building and the transference of knowledge and is usually done in the course of specializing a career path. During my apprenticeship I did stages in northern Italy, the Cotes d’Azur and in Boston, Massachusetts and undertook another stage in London, England further along the career path. There are still chefs and restaurants that I would love to stage in as a means of expanding and refining my own substantial knowledge.
As a former culinary teacher I can attest to the fact that apprentices are an incredibly valued lot. They bring industry intelligence into an academic institution. Practical orientation means they generally don’t need spoon-feeding or coddling and are impatient to get on with the task of learning. Most are also entrepreneurially inclined – they go on to own and operate a lot of small restaurants and food businesses. They do as they were taught and are built for the long haul in a demanding industry. Apprentices are sought after by many industry chefs who still run their restaurant or hotel kitchens on familiar and time tested principles.
Despite these recommendations, the ranks of culinary apprentices are dwindling under complex influences. Culinary apprenticeship has fallen victim to an anxious, debt-riddled government looking to trim services and bulging bottom lines meeting an education system seeking just as anxiously for opportunities to expand full-time programs. Cooking remains a non-unionized trade, unlike other skilled trades, and as a result lacks an external industry-based governing body actively advocating for the continuation of apprenticeship.
Apprentices don’t represent a lot of money to the education system. Unlike full-time students, apprentices occupy classroom seats temporarily. Most academic institutions, anxious to fill full-time quota, now offer academically bound culinary students internship in lieu of the hands-on experience once offered by apprenticeship. In a 16-month full-time culinary program, internship amounts to a 7-week industry based period. Slim by comparison to the hands-on experience offered by apprenticeship.
Apprenticeship requires maturity and discipline. It’s very well suited to the expanding ranks of post-graduate students turning to cooking for employment opportunities - my own path. Maturity is not age bound and there are some young people who possess enough of it to begin their apprenticeship while in high school via coop programs. To begin, a firm decision needs to be made. It’s not the place for waffling or test-driving a career choice. It requires some measure of ego annihilation – respecting those tasked with teaching. Most importantly, like investing, it requires a commitment to long-term goals. This is not the “flash in the pan” route to possessing celebrity chef swagger. There’s a lot of learning, some of it downright mundane. Swagger too early as an apprentice and you’re likely to face a bushel of peas for shucking or a box of artichokes that need trimming. A reminder of the daily practices that build true professional credentials.
The photo at the top of this piece is a young me in the kitchen at L’Escargot. The state of my jacket and apron indicates that it’s the end of a busy shift on the line. The smile on my face says it all – I’m happy to be in the kitchen. I’d found my professional home. Twenty-five years removed and I’m proud of the professional path I crafted, grateful to the people who taught me along the way, and like André am still thrilled to be in the kitchen.
Ministry of Training – Apprenticeship Program - Chef - http://www.tcu.gov.on.ca/eng/employmentontario/training/pdf/415C_Eng.pdf
College of Trades - http://www.collegeoftrades.ca
Charming read on being an apprentice in France from the celebrated Jacques Pepin - The Apprentice. My Life in the Kitchen
Or read any current biography/memoir of a celebrated chef from Marco Pierre White to Marcus Samuelsson. They’ve all completed an apprenticeship.
Charlotte Druckman has produced a wonderful and highly readable book about the professional kitchen from a female perspective. Skirt Steak. Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen.