Have Whisk, Will Travel: Culinary Arts in the Community

Saskatchewan Polytechnic is home to an important training ground for the next generation of Saskatchewan’s culinary masters. The Culinary Arts program, offered at the Saskatoon campus, is led by program head and long-time chef Derek Cotton and teaches students ‘a little bit of everything’ in the culinary world. “Our program is designed to prepare students with the core knowledge they need to work in the hospitality industry,” says Cotton. “Once they’re done their training with us, they’re ready to ‘be shaped’ by an experienced chef.”

The Culinary Arts diploma is a popular program at Sask Polytech with 150-200 would-be chefs applying for just 36 spots. Cotton has a theory on why the course is a favourite of Saskatchewan students. “I believe it’s because food is such an integral part of our lives,” says Cotton. “Food is a social thing. We catch up with our families over a meal at the end of day. We celebrate life’s milestones with a meal. We embrace one another during a hard time with a meal. It’s just part of the human condition.”

One of the unique parts of the program is the hands-on experience students get working in the community. Cotton is a believer in putting students out ‘in the field’ getting a taste of the culinary world with people working in the industry. Throughout the year, students are part of many food events around Saskatoon.

“For the past three years, we have been part of the Gold Medal Plates competition,” says Cotton. Gold Medal Plates, an annual fundraiser for the Canadian Olympic Foundation, brings chefs together to compete to become a gold, silver and bronze medal culinary team in their city, and win a spot in the Canadian Culinary Championships. “Our students support the Gold Medal Plates competition by creating the dessert for all the event guests,” says Cotton. “They also get work alongside some of the best culinary teams in the city, and make connections in the industry.” The event also provides fantastic experience for students off-site, getting practice in the catering field.

Students also spend time working at the Wintershines Warm your Heart Soup Cook-off. The event, partnered with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, pits local chefs and media professionals together to make a delicious and heart-healthy soup. “The public tries the soups on offer, and the proceeds go to charity,” says Cotton. “Again, it’s a great way for students to hone their skills and make connections.”

Cotton also gets his aspiring chefs into the Skills Canada Saskatchewan competition and SAPUTO National Junior Culinary Challenge. Both events give young chefs the chance to show off their talents and be judged by culinary professionals. Skills Canada and the SAPUTO Challenge are held in every province. Winners move on to national competitions, and face off against the top novice chefs in the country. “Both competitions are an excellent place for students to display their skills and start building their reputation in the culinary world,” says Cotton.

Cotton doesn’t see the Culinary Arts program losing its popularity any time soon. “Food and cooking is just part of our lives,” says Cotton. “It’s a rewarding career with plenty of opportunity in so many parts of our community.” There are opportunities in everything from running a kitchen for a mining operation, to working as a test kitchen chef for a food manufacturer, to catering events or owning your restaurant. With the experience and knowledge provided the Sask Polytech program, the possibilities are endless for Saskatchewan’s aspiring culinary stars.