Before Mike Izdebski trained at North Shore Culinary School, he felt lost. He had been unemployed for two years after trying his hand at various jobs, and his confidence was low. Through the British Columbia Employment Program, he found out about NSCS, a tuition-free culinary institution for anyone with a passion for cooking. Today, as a graduate of the school, he works in the kitchen of the newly opened NSCS Discovery Café (on Discovery Street), where he’s applying his classroom skills in a real-world environment.
Izdebski’s face is suffused with contentment when he reflects on how the culinary program has changed his life. “It’s been a big growing experience. The person I started as is completely different from who I am now.” He adds that even his relationships with his family members have been positively altered by his education.
Izdebski’s transformation is an example of the type of impact Don Guthro wanted to make when he launched the school four years ago. Previously, he was the academic director at another local culinary school, but he grew disenchanted at charging what he felt were exorbitant tuition rates that were inaccessible to the vast majority of applicants.
Although he’s hesitant to stereotype his students, he explains that many of them are at-risk, marginalized individuals who are seeking a fresh start. His ideal candidates are eager to learn and work hard, and haven’t been dazzled by the Food Network into thinking they’ll be celebrity chefs.
Guthro proudly watches the cooks prep in the café: “It’s so rewarding, the feeling of giving back to the community. I’m looking at a whole other vision of education.” Instruction in the school is compassionate, extremely hands-on, and attentive to the unique needs of its students. Students leave the school after the six-month or year-long program equipped with cooking techniques, but also fundamental life skills, like self-assurance, efficiency, discipline, and, above all, passion. So far, 57 students have graduated, and the school also serves over 275,000 meals a year to the needy in order to further its connection to the community.
Guthro is emphatic about the biggest challenge in operating his cooking program: money. He has managed to keep the school chugging along with revenue from the student-run catering company, and now, from Discovery Café. (A second café is in the works in North Vancouver.)
This teaching space is a partnership between NSCS and Hostelling International-Vancouver Jericho Beach, which was more than happy to put the hostel’s cafeteria in the hands of the school. Guthro’s long-term vision is to recruit students from across Canada, and house them at the hostel for the duration of their schooling.
“Given we’re two not-for-profit organisations, it was a perfect fit,” explains Shelbey Sy, director of the hostel’s marketing, during a phone chat. “We’re all about young people experiencing things. With us, it’s through travel, and with him, it’s about opening up opportunities in the culinary industry.”
What was once a utilitarian hostel cafeteria is now a basic yet welcoming café that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner to backpackers and, increasingly, neighbourhood locals who love the décor and menu revamp. Sy says the level of the food has been upped significantly, with options like a spinach, tomato, and goat cheese omelette ($9.95), a herb-crusted seared-salmon sandwich with fries or mixed green salad ($9.95), and a daily blackboard special such as arancini (deep-fried risotto balls, $11.95).
The paid cooks at the café are either in the midst of their program, or, like Izdebski, recent graduates who are getting a taste of a working kitchen before taking on a job in a more demanding kitchen. Patrick Dudsdeemaytha, one of the trainers, takes a break from the kitchen and sits down to talk about how he eases the newbie cooks into the rhythms of being on the line.
Since he went through the school in 2010, Dudsdeemaytha knows firsthand how intimidating becoming a cook can be. He starts the apprentices off practising their knife skills in prep, and then gets them to make stocks before assigning them to a food station. Given the shaky confidence of some of the students, he patiently teaches them how to maintain cleanliness standards, work as a team, and increase the speed of their work. “Each individual is different. I don’t want to push too much sometimes,” he explains.
After apprenticing in the bustling café, students are much more prepared to face the hectic pace of a restaurant kitchen. School graduates have gotten entry-level jobs in establishments like Lift, Diva at the Met, Boneta, and C Restaurant, where their learning continues. Izdebski smiles when he reflects on how far he’s come since he enrolled at NSCS: “The program gave me discipline. Hard work won’t kill me. So, I’m going for it. I’m really happy where I’m at right now.”