Let’s work from the assumption that a strong culinary scene in any region requires well-trained chefs working inventive menus in their restaurants and serving a customer base that is engaged with and cares about cooking and freshly made food. To that, you need to add culinary instruction that connects with both of these other stakeholders.
In good part, Keith Muller has been tasked with the latter element — and he is clearly in his element as a program builder. Muller is the Chair of Conestoga College’s School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts. He’s been a good part of the supervision of the 150,000 square-foot expansion, which wrapped around and expanded the existing Conestoga campus at 108 University Avenue in Waterloo. The build-out of the state-of-the-art facility began in early 2017, and now includes new food and beverage programs and a new Institute for Culinary and Hospitality Management. Muller, formerly of George Brown College’s culinary program (for 12 years) and of Red River College in Winnipeg, says that the new facility and its people will have a significant impact on the growth and sustainability of Waterloo Region’s hospitality industry. “With our instructors and these state-of-the-art facilities that we have added, Conestoga College has increased enrollment and can offer a number of new programs that have not been offered here or in the region before. It’s a new age of culinary instruction,” Muller says.
Students began filling the classrooms and labs a few weeks ago, and are being introduced to new equipment and teaching facilities in far more and far better space. That means an improved learning environment, but also an opportunity for Conestoga to engage with the community-at-large in a specialized event space that is open to the general public, and through continuing and part-time education, according to Muller. That will certainly help to continue the building of the three-pronged platform of a strong culinary environment. The investors were three-fold. There has been a federal-provincial investment of about $16 million ($14 million came from the federal government and $1.8 million from the province). The College and community contributed nearly $28 million, which makes for a total investment of $43.5 million. Muller points out that the state-of-the-art facilities will help continue Waterloo Region’s bid to become a top food destination. “We’ll supply qualified and trained cooks to the industry here and help develop the food and beverage scene locally. To do that successfully, it’s important to bring together the farming community, food purveyors of all sorts, and the general public,” he says.
To help with the program, Muller, who has trained as a chef, has experience as a restaurateur and has run culinary programs at a number of institutions, has appointed Amédé Lamarche as Coordinator of Culinary Programs. Lamarche, who was a faculty member at George Brown for seven years, is expert with artisan breads, chocolate and sugar confections and is a strong advocate for local and sustainable cuisine. He’s lived in several Canadian cities and worked in restaurants in Stratford, Toronto, Ottawa, Whistler and Vancouver. A certified Red Seal chef and Red Seal baker, Lamarche trained at Chicago’s French Pastry School, The Chocolate Academy in Montreal and Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Pâtisserie in Yssingeaux, France; he cooked at The Church in Stratford for a decade. For Lamarche, good cooking is about simple and straightforward ingredients, and about sharing a passion for food.
“It’s important to create a connection between fresh ingredients and the food that you serve people, whether family or restaurant guests,” Lamarche says. “It’s about being natural and real.”
Both Muller and Lamarche are excited about returning the craft of culinary instruction to some of the foundational elements that are part of Waterloo Region history. “Two major components will be butchery and charcuterie, which harken to this area’s rich history and which are hugely popular movements of crafted food currently at restaurants,” Muller says, adding that the College will also be adding a program in artisanal cheese making. “That’s another age-old craft we’re looking forward to seeing grow here and in outlying regions.” Add to all of that the fact that a new and as yet unnamed restaurant will be opening at the campus. Newly appointed Corporate Chef Brad Lomanto, formerly of the Cambridge Mill, will oversee the restaurant and the food and beverage operations at the College. “One of Chef Lomanto’s most important jobs will be to ensure a consistency in training within the restaurant,” Muller notes. As for the restaurant itself, it is student-driven and “primarily on curriculum but also on the skills they are learning. It will be modern, upscale-casual and urban and an opportunity for new products and events including wine-maker, brew-master and cheese-maker dinners,” he says. Muller has also recently hired a notable culinary professional to head up the re-vamped baking and pastry arts program for Conestoga. “Sabine Heinrich-Kumar will be in charge of this program,” he says, “and to do it she brings a wealth of talent and international experience to the position.” Heinrich-Kumar has taught at both George Brown and Centennial College and has worked and trained at restaurants and hotels in Switzerland, Vienna, London and Dubai.
A re-imagined culinary educational institution in Waterloo Region — like the Stratford Chefs School, Niagara College or George Brown — is a key piece of the puzzle within the agrarian and farming base that characterizes Waterloo Region, says Muller. “It’s a region that is growing quickly, but it remains true to its rich and historic farming and food heritage. More and more, we see good food and great restaurants opening up with that in the background. ”
Andrew Coppolino is a Kitchener-based writer and broadcaster. He is publisher of Waterloo Region Eats (waterlooregioneats.com). Andrew also serves as a regional Eatdrink Editorial Consultant.