VCC culinary-arts chef instructor Tobias MacDonald explains how program has adapted to the new reality

The chefs of tomorrow are learning in new ways

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      Vancouver Community College’s culinary arts program has earned a reputation as one of the best training grounds for B.C. chefs. Grads have gone on to work at such respected places as Fairmont Hotels, Earls Kitchen and Bar, Pan Pacific Hotel Vancouver, and Hawksworth Restaurant, among many others.

      COVID-19 isn’t putting a pause on developing the chefs of tomorrow.

      Chef instructor Tobias MacDonald is a certified master chef who has been teaching at VCC for the past eight years.

      When he received the CMC title, the highest culinary designation in Canada, in 2015, he was just the second person to do so. Only four other people in the country hold the esteemed rank.

      It’s just one of several culinary achievements for MacDonald. He competed with Culinary Team Canada over a period of several years and helped it earn multiple gold medals at the Culinary Olympics. He has also coached Culinary Team Canada, as well as the junior national team. From 2010 to 2012, he qualified to represent Canada in the World Association of Chefs Societies’ Global Chefs’ Challenge, winning the semifinals for North and South America and placing third in the finals in South Korea.

      Although the global pandemic hasn’t stopped VCC from training future chefs, operations look much different now than they did in the recent past.

      Three of the VCC kitchens have transformed into commissary space where support staff prepares meals for residents of the Downtown Eastside.

      “Otherwise, it is a bit of a ghost town,” MacDonald tells the Straight. “Students have been all working remotely since mid-March and will continue to until we get the Provincial Health Officer guidelines in the next few weeks.”

      There’s a Zoom lecture daily to provide the theory and academic side, as well as activities, quizzes, and assignments via a Moodle online classroom. Students are also tasked with completing short essays (or video essays), a small research project, and other assignments.

      “The hands-on part of our course continues to be the challenging part to implement,” MacDonald says. “We have been front-loading classes with the lectures and demos, and plan to bring students back in a safe way, adhering to provincial health guidelines, in the coming weeks for their practical components.

      “We cannot assume that all of our students have kitchens, ingredients, and equipment to do a lot of the tasks,” he adds. “I’ve made a lot of video content for students to watch. I’ve even experimented with wearing an action cam to do some point-of-view lessons for students to follow along.”

      During a recent class, students did a fun take on a “black box” competition via Zoom, using foods they had on hand or could easily procure. They made items like soufflés, eclairs, and puff pastry. Only some could participate, however, as not all had the necessary ingredients. So MacDonald adapted anew.

      “This week, for my new class, I made care packages and drove around the Lower Mainland, delivering them to everyone, so now I can actually structure a lesson that everyone can participate in,” MacDonald says. “I can give feedback and advice on what I can see, but I’m lucky my students are almost a year into the program, so it’s actually a great exercise for them to evaluate themselves.”

      Things will continue to evolve as B.C. responds to the pandemic.

      The school will assess classrooms to see how many students can safely fit amid physical distancing and will determine how the schedule will look with significant reduction in class size.

      Courses will likely encompass a hybrid approach, with online classes for theory and reduced hours for hands-on, practical work.

      On the positive side, the team has developed new multimedia content and activities that can be used down the road, pandemic or not.

      “It has been quite a ride,” MacDonald says. “I believe this experience will make us stronger in the future. I really must commend and say a heartfelt thank you to all of the students who have beared with us in all of this, being guinea pigs for whatever we came up with, pushing me out of my comfort zone to learn some new things myself.

      “Initially, when the restrictions first came out, my gut reaction was we would need to pause the program,” he adds. “But the issues are very complex, so we innovated quickly—which is an important part of being a chef.”