A Look Inside Centennial College’s New Culinary Arts Centre

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Twitter can reveal a lot of passion. In just 140 characters, dean Joe Baker of Centennial College’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts does more promotion for the college than any advertisement could. In late January, Baker tweeted: “Today I had an omelette @TheLocalCC made by a baking student. It was the second time she had ever made one in her life! Only @CentennialEDU.”

What Baker’s tweet doesn’t reveal is how many times the student had to scrap the omelette before getting it right. “That’s the beauty of combining our culinary programs with actual restaurant experience on site — someone might have to make that coffee two to three times to perfect it,” explains Baker. “But that’s where the real learning happens.” The newly designed, Toronto-based Culinary Arts Centre at Centennial, a collaboration with Diamond Schmitt Architects, coincides with the college’s 50th anniversary — a celebration that also commemorates its history as the first publicly funded Ontario college. The eight-storey building combines a 740-unit student residence with an open-concept Culinary Arts Centre featuring a whopping 353,500 sq. ft. of space. This includes an expansive ground-floor school environment with five contemporary kitchen labs, eight large classrooms and a full-service restaurant, quick-service café and Grab-and-Go shop open to the public. The kitchens of The Local Cafe and The Local Restaurant are also on view so the public can observe the students at work — and coincidentally, the students can also get used to being in the spotlight.

On the top floor, a conference space, banquet and event centre with jaw-dropping views allows for students to practice the rigorous planning and coordination required for large-scale event with up to 460 guests. Four “practice” hotel rooms, usually reserved for college guests and/or industry stakeholders, allow for event planning and hotel-management students to learn the ins and outs of hotel operations before their first paid day on the job.

“This is about experiential learning, where students can get a simulation of various settings within the industry,” says Baker. He recalls his own college experience and the huge gap he experienced between theory and practice. “Once I was out of school, my first job was at The Keg,” recalls Baker. “The first thing they did to train a Keg employee was to have them rotate through literally every position at the restaurant — from dishwasher to bartender — so they had a holistic sense of what it took to run the operation.” Baker says he learned more within that first month than he did at school.

Not only did Baker work his way up the ranks of the B.C.-based Keg Steakhouse, he also worked at Toronto-based Oliver & Bonacini restaurants prior to joining the world of education. Since Baker came from the industry, he knew what new graduates were lacking. To this end, he made the critical decision to foster a school that merged education and industry experience: “Our program bridges the gap between school and industry learning, something that truly differentiates us from other colleges.”

The curriculum changes and opportunities — especially the ability to practice cafe, restaurant and event-size service— has resulted in a surge of applications to the program. “For sure, the number of applications has gone up because industry onlookers and stakeholders want to hire our graduates over those who have merely studied the theory and don’t have the day-to-day, real-time operational experience,” says Baker. Prior to Baker’s arrival as dean, the culinary school remained a fairly small part of the college, with only a couple of culinary labs. Baker seized the opportunity to remake the program with a view to attract local and international students and to become a world leader in the field of hospitality.

Working with project architect Branka Gazibara, a senior associate at Diamond Schmitt Architects, Baker created a brand new, green-friendly facility in a prominent location on Centennial’s Progress Avenue campus. The building now meets LEED Silver-certification criteria by incorporating water-saving technologies, as well as a green roof and an open green space/leisure area for students on the ground floor. “This was a unique project because it was to be a place where students live and also where they would study in a sort of real-life, interactive setting,” explains Gazibara. “The large kitchens on the ground floor of the building allow for student collaboration and optimized observation of other people practicing, making mistakes — just learning.”   Gazibara notes there were challenges along the way. “There were a lot of demands on this building,” she explains. The biggest one was figuring out how to incorporate all the different program components in one building on a very limited site. “It couldn’t have worked without close collaboration between the client, the users, the consultants and its construction managers to make sure all diverse requirements for each venue — the classrooms, event centre and student residences — are met,” notes Gazibara. “But we’re very pleased with the results and so are the students.”

Little details reveal the design attention given to the new culinary institute. The teaching spaces, for example, are each assigned different colours and bold graphics to identify what they’re used for. The all-purpose lab, the bake lab and the multicultural lab (for international cuisine) feature stainless-steel appliances and are extremely well-lit with student work sections designed with individual fridges, cutting boards and recipe holders. And the Wi-Fi signal is strong, with state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities throughout the building. Culinary classes can also be broadcast to other areas of the building for large events or different teaching opportunities.

“We wanted to maximize the natural light in this building as much as possible,” says Gazibara. “At the same time, we wanted the public to be able to observe the culinary labs and student learning, so that the programs are really being showcased, even to people just passing by.”

A beverage lab, geared for taste-testing more so than mixology, was also created, as well as a full-scale catering kitchen on the eighth floor where events are held. Many different venue options were incorporated into the design of the building. “The foodservice industry is constantly changing,” says Baker. “One student may start in a café, but the other may go to work in a high-end environment or a banquet hall. From an education standpoint, you have to embed all these experiences within the curriculum as essential skills.” He hopes no matter which aspect of the industry graduates are drawn to, they will be prepared.

“That’s why I don’t think it’s enough to just focus on fine dining and baking,” says Baker when discussing the traditional curricula of other culinary programs. “It’s just not realistic for an industry that is trending in a different direction. Fast-casual is our focus for our students because we know that that’s the segment of the market that is experiencing the most rapid expansion.”

Culinary education has become big business as millennials make restaurant visits soar, so attracting a keen student body and staking out industry partners can make or break a college’s education. “We knew this would be a high-visibility building for the college,” explains Gazibara. “You have to appreciate the presence it has now. It’s literally the gateway building to Centennial and it really animates the entire street.” This makes the culinary program itself highly visible and a local hotspot for the public. “Interacting with the public, customer service, is a key component of our curriculum,” explains Baker. “You get the opportunity not just to perform the task, but to get the butterflies out of the way so you’re confident and experienced once you’re out there in the ‘real world’ facing the public for the first time while on the job.” While customers know that students are the ones preparing the food, there are almost always line-ups to the various venues.

“This is the first culinary school in Ontario that fosters a truly experiential learning experience,” Baker says with a smile. “It’s something I’m proud to be a part of and to participate in every day.” Even if that participation means simply buying his breakfast from a first-year student who has no idea what she’s doing. “Mistakes are good in the school context,” says Baker, adding “That’s how you learn.”

Volume 49, Number 12
Written by Jennifer Febbaro

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