Students of the stove

Danielle McEwen prepares her meal as the clock clicks down in the final competition of New Westminster secondary
Danielle McEwen prepares her meal as the clock clicks down in the final competition of New Westminster secondary's culinary chef program.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

Flames jump as beef, lamb and salmon are turned on the gas grill. Bodies bump as pimple-faced Chef Gordon Ramsay wannabes flip veggies in their saucepans. Pots, pans, whisks and tongs clang as the students in their kitchen whites slave over the stove.

Hunter Blackburn shouts, “I need a blow torch.” He gets it and starts lighting up his creation just as Chef Stephen Schram barks “10 minutes” to his protégés at New Westminster secondary.

It’s the last day in the Pearson kitchen for the New Westminster secondary students, and this is the culmination of a week-long cooking competition that is their final exam, so to speak. The previous four days were spent selecting ingredients, designing recipes, testing and prepping for the big day. When the 10 minutes are up, the 13 students have 15 more minutes to produce their dishes for the judging.

Blackburn is the first to finish, but the window isn’t open yet for presentation to the judges, so he plunks a leftover roasted tomato canape on a plate for Karen Crosby, career programs coordinator at NWSS, who takes a small forkful.

“It’s got some zing in it, Hunter,” exclaims Crosby. “It’s delicious.”

“Window’s open,” declares Schram, and Blackburn grabs his dish and puts it on the table for the judges, chefs Schram and Lance Bourne, and vice-principal Kelly Boechler.

The next 15 minutes are frenetic as Blackburn’s classmates battle to get done. “David, two minutes,” Schram yells at the last one who scrambles right up until the last second to finish.

Finally the judges bring out their clipboards and start marking on presentation before picking up forks, a fresh one for every dish, to conduct the taste test. This is the first year NWSS has had the culinary ACE-IT (Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training) program.

Classroom cooking

In the first semester, the students were in the kitchen part time, but in the second term they were immersed in the program, which included producing 300 lunches in the Pearson cafeteria daily and field trips to fine dining restaurants.

Even though the school year is toast, 13 students will be back cooking in the classroom in just a few weeks. But this time they’ll be doing it at Vancouver Community College for a five-week course that will give them their Level I certification.

The students are a mix of those who have been foodies since their high-chair days to those seeking direction in their lives.

“It’s a huge confidence builder,” says Crosby. “What I love is they’re all pretty engaged. There’s no sitting around. Some of them have to get here at 7 a.m. to do the baking. It’s very demanding.”

Blackburn certainly doesn’t mind the work. He’s been helping out in his mom’s kitchen since he was six. He began working in a Port Moody Greek restaurant owned by his friend’s father about five or six years ago.
When he heard about the NWSS program he was excited.

“I really enjoy cooking just because there are no guidelines to it. It’s not like math where there’s always the same answer for everything. You can make anything,” says Blackburn, who was home schooled until he went to NWSS in Grade 9. “It’s been unbelievably fun [but] it’s quite hard, it’s not like an easy walk in the park.”

A lot of his ideas are inspired by family trips around the world. The last was to Thailand where he took a cooking course that gave him the concept for his spicy final exam dish that had Chef Schram emptying his water bottle during the judging.

When he’s not in the Pearson kitchen or playing his guitar, Blackburn works at The Boathouse on Westminster Quay.

Like Blackburn, Danielle McEwen has always liked helping out in the kitchen at home, much more than being in a classroom.

“In Grade 8 I didn’t go to school at all,” she says. “When I got older I realized I was not going to be able to skip school the rest of my life.”

So when the culinary program came along she jumped at it.

“I was so excited. I could be able to cook my whole grad year, instead of doing social studies and stuff. It was great,” McEwen says with a smile. “It put me on a tighter schedule, it made me be on time, it made me want to come to school. I had to be here because I didn’t want to let my team down.”

However, McEwen isn’t sure cooking in a restaurant is in her long-term future. She really enjoyed the baking part of the program, which she feels would likely be less stressful.

“I’m going to go through VCC and see how I like it,” says McEwen. “You can go any [direction] you want.”

The competition’s top two marks went to Grade 11 students, Damiano Saleh and Tim Salvacion. Since the program is offered every second year, Grade 12 might seem anti-climatic.

“[The program] was really up my alley. It helps so much to be in a practical setting instead of a theoretical setting,” says Saleh.

That said, he rushes off to do the not-so-glamourous ‘practical’ part of the program—clean up.

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