To say Serge Belair loves his job is an understatement. Since joining the 2012 Culinary Team, the 33-year-old senior sous chef at Edmonton’s Shaw Convention Centre has spent every waking moment honing his skills in preparation for the World Culinary Olympics this coming fall.
Bélair grew up in Gatineau, Que., eating earthy, traditional fare. He recalls his mother forcing him to eat blood sausage, but has a sweeter memory of bologna pan-fried in butter. “There was no fine-dining at my house,” he says matter-of-factly.
At the age of 11, he walked into his first professional kitchen and was mesmerized by the shiny stainless-steel surfaces. So, when his parents divorced, and his father didn’t know how to cook, Bélair took over the kitchen. His curiosity about food led to a two-year culinary diploma from the Commission scolaire la Vallée-de-la-Lièvre in Gatineau. He returned four years later, eager to learn more. At La Pergola at Gatineau’s Hotel Clarion, he supervised kitchen staff. He also worked in a tiny Belgian restaurant, where the chef encouraged him to create daily five-course menus. “I learned to cook with love and passion,” he says.
In 2005, a chef-de-partie job beckoned at the Shaw Conference Centre, where serving 3,000 people a day is all in a day’s work. Bélair was promoted to sous chef in 2007 and became senior sous chef last year. “It’s a big organization, and you have to be sharp,” says the chef, who thrives on adrenaline in the kitchen. He also loves coaching his apprentices. “They’re like my family — I would take a bullet for those guys,” he says. “I’ve got an excellent crew.”
His drive and skill with proteins and sauces did not go unnoticed by Team Canada members, who fly to Edmonton regularly to practice with Simon Smotkowicz, his boss and mentor. “Simon always told me I should join the team to develop my talent,” says Bélair, who officially signed on nine months ago. As a supporter, he’s involved in every step of preparations for Germany in case a team member falters. “I’m good in the hot kitchen and cooking on the spot; that’s why I think they like me,” he says. “But I still have to prove myself.”
In June, Bélair proved he could excel when he was crowned 2012 Canadian chef of the year at the chef federation’s annual conference in Halifax. The media attention stunned him. “I was interviewed on national TV and French radio — it was overwhelming,” he says.
However, there’s humility in the work. Training with the team has made him even more disciplined and organized. “It’s forced me to grow up and become a professional,” he says. But it’s been a tough year. After an eight-hour shift at Shaw he works for the team — researching recipes and creating and perfecting dishes for the next fundraising event. There’s no time for a girlfriend; he even spends his vacation time preparing for Germany. “It’s a lot of hours, but it’s awesome,” he says. “You get to travel across the country, meet other chefs, see their techniques and eat in their restaurants.”
Next year, he’ll represent Canada at the Americas level in Las Vegas. But first, there’s a gold medal up for grabs in Germany. “Being on the culinary team is like being on a sports team representing your country,” he says. “Everybody brings their own magic.”
photo courtesy of Eugene Uhuad/3Ten