Years ago, most Chinese parents would have preferred that their kid become a doctor, a lawyer, or even an accountant, rather than a cook. “Times have changed,” says Conrad Leung, head of the Asian culinary arts department at Vancouver Community College. “It is not like the olden days, when parents said, ”˜Hey, don’t get an occupation as a chef because that is a lousy job.’ ”
Leung sits in his office adjoining a teaching kitchen, where on any given day woks sizzle as students master stir-frying, braising, and deep-frying. In 1975, he developed the bilingual Chinese-English program from scratch after applying for the job from Hong Kong, along with more than 300 other hopefuls.
More than three decades and a thousand students later, Leung beams with pride at the program’s success. The original four-month program is now six months long, with two to three intakes per year of 18 students each. It has also expanded from Hong Kong–style cooking to include Mandarin and Sichuan cuisine, as well as more varied seafood dishes.
“At the time, we didn’t have such things like live lobster in the market available, and geoduck was not popular at all,” he explains. He anticipates that the program will eventually become pan-Asian, with instruction on Japanese, Thai, and Korean cooking.
Students rotate around seven stations with positions that include “tossing wok”, “preparation”, and “soup, barbecue, and sales” as they learn everything from poultry basics to the art of dim sum. Quiz the students and they will tell you how much baking soda and sugar to put in a beef marinade, and how to prep dried scallops with Shaoxing wine, green onions, and pounded ginger.
Every day, they produce food for more than 200 hungry cafeteria customers who line up for steaming platefuls of dishes like braised bean curd with shrimp and stir-fried beef with Chinese broccoli.
Leung hasn’t lost his zest for teaching newbies about these delicacies, especially when he’s dealing with a diverse student profile. His last session, for example, included students of Italian, First Nations, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino origin in addition to the program’s traditional base of Chinese students. Recent high-school graduates are also enlisting in this culinary boot camp, as well as western-trained chefs who want to jump-start their eastern cooking abilities.
The biggest shift is that students—equipped with skills, self-assurance, and increased English fluency—now have their sights firmly set on mainstream restaurants with Asian-influenced menus. “At the time when the first students graduated from the program, all of them, they only worked in the Chinese community. Now, the majority of the students do not work in Chinese restaurants. Does it surprise you? It surprises me!”
Ken Ma, originally from Hong Kong, graduated from the program in July and is ecstatic about his new job cooking Chinese menu items at Starlight Casino in New Westminster. He is soft-spoken and unassuming, but frank about the longer hours and lower pay of Chinese restaurant work.
“The pay can’t attract those people who want to work in the industry,” he says during a chat at the school. His two years of cooking at a small owner-operated Chinese joint gave him a taste for the business but also a burning desire for more formal training. He explains that working at a Chinese restaurant, the owner “is not hiding the secrets, but he has got no time to tell you, and he has no responsibility to tell you them. In the [VCC] program, the chef will not hide the secrets.”
“The class is pretty much like a restaurant, but we learn more than any restaurant [would require],” says Wen Lu Liu, another recent graduate who answers questions before rushing off to cook at Cardero’s. With quiet confidence, Liu explains that he worked in the front office of a Beijing hotel before immigrating to Canada five years ago and getting a job as a server at Neighbourhood Noodle House in North Vancouver.
The Cardero’s wok station suits him fine for now, but he has dreams of expanding his skill set and one day making management. “For now, tossing wok is okay, and later, I’ll take another course so I can fit any restaurant,” he says.
The gleam of optimism in Liu’s eyes is mirrored in those of Leung, who, as an instructor, insists that today his students have more potential than ever. “The mainstream market is a huge ocean, and that is where they are going and what they are qualified to do,” he declares. Asked whether one of his students will one day eclipse the likes of Rob Feenie or David Hawksworth, his emphatic response is, “We will. We will.”