We are living through a gastronomic rebirth, a golden age of dining threatened by the shortage of cooks and chefs — exacerbated even further by a lack of professionally-trained service personnel. With such a high demand for trained culinary professionals and the sheer amount of new restaurant openings, it has become next to impossible to recruit skilled kitchen labour. This chronic shortage of workers is the lament and constant refrain of almost every restaurateur I know. A vibrant culinary scene requires well-trained kitchen and front-of-house staff. Help, however, is on the way.
Conestoga College’s recent expansion in Cambridge includes new culinary programming and a 50-seat full-service restaurant as part of its new Institute for Culinary and Hospitality Management. At Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute, Benchmark Restaurant offers an innovative dining experience — showcasing food, wine and beer created, prepared and presented by students, with menu items based on what is being taught each academic semester. This allows students to hone their skill sets in order to attain success. In Stratford, the Stratford Chefs School’s new state-of-the-art facility allows students to experience all the fundamental kitchen positions in order to produce menus daily under the guidance of a faculty of esteemed local chefs and guest chefs from across Canada and internationally. For the first time the Stratford Chefs School can welcome the public into the facility, not just as dinner patrons but also as active learners with hands-on programming.
This brings us to Fanshawe College’s new $66-million six-storey downtown campus, which opened in the fall of 2017 in the former Kingsmill’s department store. It was both on time and within budget, much to the amazement of naysayers. Downtown London is the optimal location for the hospitality/culinary and information technology programs, which have made their home at the new campus. Filled with destination restaurants, culinary retailers and home to the Covent Garden Market and its seasonal, producer-only farmers’ market, the core location is a seamless fit.
Fanshawe’s culinary program is showcased at The Chef’s Table, the street level restaurant that provides a training ground for culinary students and serves locally-sourced food with a sustainable focus. The term chef’s table refers to an area of a restaurant allocated to diners where they can have an interactive experience with the chef at work, and are often served a curated tasting menu.
The Chef’s Table will stimulate culinary innovation and diversity locally, provide collateral employment, and contribute to creating a strong, well-trained and experienced culinary workforce. In addition to drawing diners to the restaurant, The Chef’s Table and the hospitality program will foster a strengthened culinary identity and commercial viability, and add to the social and culinary fabric not only of the downtown but of the city at large.
State-of-the-art kitchens and a bakery comprise most of the third floor of the College, appropriately named the Spriet Family Culinary Centre. There are five kitchens in all: three savoury kitchens, a pastry lab and a bake lab. More than one million dollars was invested in new equipment with the Spriet family donating $500,000 to this initiative. Students are taught the art of crafting proper cocktails on the fourth floor, in the 24-station mixology lab. A licensed patio is located outside this space.
There is a living wall over 20 feet high at the Dundas Street entrance containing more than 200 plants of various species. A broad staircase doubles as a gathering place and small amphitheatre. There are also shared learning spaces in the corridors.
The ground floor teaching restaurant, The Chef’s Table, has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the new Dundas Place flex street. The Chef’s Table replaces Saffron’s at Fanshawe’s main campus on Oxford Street. Saffron’s, until it’s closing earlier this year, was one of London’s beloved culinary institutions. For decades, Saffron’s dining facilities allowed students to gain experience ranging from upscale casual dining to fine dining and table-side service. In recent years, under the watchful eye of Chef Wade Fitzgerald, menus changed frequently and seasonally with a focus and commitment to using local and sustainable foods. This allowed students to gain practical hands-on experience and an understanding of what it means to work in and be committed to the hospitality industry.
Just before Saffron’s closed I had lunch with Chef Josie Pontarelli, coordinator of Fanshawe’s Artisanal Culinary Arts program and a graduate of the Stratford Chefs School. We talked about culinary mentorship and Fanshawe College’s one-of-a-kind Artisanal Culinary Arts graduate program as well as the students’ engagement and enthusiasm. We also discussed the challenges in raising the profile of the program and finding outside support, as many people are unaware of its existence. The updated program teaches students techniques in gardening, fermenting, preserving, butchering, curing, cheesemaking, and bread baking. Based on a modified schedule that runs from May to December, a spring intake allows students to work in the on-campus fruit and vegetable garden throughout the semester as part of the fast-track curriculum. The seasonal ingredients which the gardens provide are utilized in labs, and produce is sold at the on-campus farmers’ market every other week. We also spoke about the inaugural Artisanal Culinary Arts fundraising dinner which was held in October 2018 on what was coincidentally International Chefs Day.
The Chef’s Table, London’s second certified Feast On® restaurant, honours the procurement of local and sustainable foods and focused on serving quality and seasonal Ontario ingredients. Feast On® is a certification program that recognizes businesses committed to procuring Ontario grown and made food and drink. The restaurant features Ocean Wise approved seafood. I was hooked after sampling Seared Ocean Wise Salmon with roasted tomato broth, seasonal vegetables and lemon aioli — the co-mingling of flavours was outstanding. There was an excellent sharing board with roasted Gunn’s Hill Brigid’s Brie, caponata, Pingue prosciutto (sourced from Niagara food specialties), fresh fruit and warm house-made focaccia.
The dinner menu offers Metzger’s striploin steak with brown butter mash, root vegetables and Madeira demi-glace. Clear Creek Farm’s organic, free-range chicken is served with arugula pesto, wild rice arancini and roasted baby carrots. The triple-layer carrot cake with cream cheese frosting is one of the tallest and best iterations I’ve tasted.
Because of the culinary program there is a retail store, open to the public, on the main floor that sells chefs coats, aprons, professional chef knife sets and pastry tool kits.
Fanshawe College’s new downtown campus and The Chef’s Table are a boon to London’s culinary scene and to the downtown core, and are sure to launch more stellar cooks, chefs, bartenders and knowledgeable service professionals into the hospitality sector. The Chef’s Table and the Culinary Arts and Hospitality programs are bolstered by chefs and culinary educators, many of whom deserve individual recognition due to their long standing dedication and devotion.
The Chef’s Table
Fanshawe College London Downtown Campus
130 Dundas Street, London
Lunch: Monday–Friday, 11am to 2pm
Dinner: Monday–Friday, 5pm to 8pm