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On the Job with… Ryan Rockefeller, Food Technician

A teacher in a culinary class works with a student at a stove

It’s just before 8 a.m. in the Hospitality and Tourism program’s kitchen at Tollgate Technological Skills Centre, and Ryan Rockefeller, Food Technician with the program, is turning up the tunes. Familiar rock songs from the ‘70s soon fill the space and transform the sleepy energy before students arrive.

“We always have music playing, and the older stuff tends to have safer lyrics,” says Rockefeller. “It’s all about making this a fun, welcoming space as soon as students walk in, so music really helps. It sets the tone for a good day.”

Students will soon file in and suit up with aprons and hair nets for two back-to-back periods of hands-on learning and teamwork as they prepare the day’s lunch menu – ever-evolving offerings that promote healthy, delicious eating while working with what’s available and cost effective. Menu items are available for affordable prices since the program works on a cost-recovery basis, while providing a learning experience comparable to any commercial setting. Unlike many courses, the results of not meeting the learning goals have very real consequences. The heat in this kitchen is hot, after all, and not adhering to rules and regulations affects more than just marks.

“Cooking is the kind of thing that can either be really great or really awful, depending on your timing,” observes Rockefeller. “Panic can be a typical reaction, but this learning process teaches you to take a step back and trust that you’re going to get through it.”

The program’s students certainly seem to be getting through any setbacks. Leading up to Mother’s Day, they prepared approximately 1,500 meat pies as part of an annual sale at the school. Overseeing the health and safety aspects, and providing advice and guidance is the role of a Food Technician.

“A Food Technician is essentially an Educational Assistant with a culinary background,” explains Rockefeller, whose career trajectory merges his culinary chops with his ability to reach students with the practical and theoretical knowledge needed to pursue their own careers in the field. “There are health code regulations and safety procedures that need to be adhered to, especially when serving food to the public, and that’s where Food Techs come in.”

A group works in a kitchen

Growing up in Brantford, Rockefeller transferred from Brantford Collegiate Institute and Vocational School to Tollgate in order to take the first steps in what would become his career in the very program his role now supports. He went on to Liaison College in Hamilton, graduating from its culinary arts program before honing his skills in restaurant kitchens. He keeps a foot in the industry, working a few evenings and weekends at a taphouse in Paris he helped open and at which he eventually moved up to the position of head chef.

“It’s a huge outlet for me working in the field because it’s my passion, but it does make for a busy life,” acknowledges Rockefeller, who’s also working towards his degree in education through the University of Windsor. “It doesn’t feel like work; I have fun with food and I have fun teaching.”

Back in the kitchen, the clock is ticking and students are busy preparing for lunch. Some are julienning vegetables for spring rolls, others are making a béchamel sauce for the macaroni and cheese, and at another station, potatoes are being turned into french fries, seasoned and baked, not deep-fried. They coordinate movements to ensure dirty pots and pans are taken to the dishwashing area, surfaces are prepped for the next task, and no one bumps into anyone else, especially if there’s a hot or heavy dish involved. It’s a bit like watching a well choreographed dance, with Rockefeller and Hospitality and Tourism teacher Tony Fordham helping guide the whole thing.

“There are a lot of lessons that the kitchen teaches you, and I think the ability to communicate with each other is a big one,” says Rockefeller. “The kitchen is an incredible teacher of team dynamics; you’re coming together to create one dish, and it builds trust in the team because you’re all responsible for the success of that dish.”

A large group of people poses in a kitchen

It’s almost like Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan took a few pages from the lessons of the kitchen as well. The program that calls the kitchen its classroom utilizes Technology and Environment by ensuring the workspace is current and makes the best use of space. There are cross-curricular applications as well; the Construction class at Tollgate designed and fabricated a smoker, for example, which gets put to good use. There are obvious connections to Achievement, as the Specialist High Skills Major program provides a direct line to a major employment sector. There are also implications for Well-Being as staff create and promote an enabling environment where students can participate fully in their education.

“We don’t believe in the Gordon Ramsay way of doing things, and frankly, I think he gives chefs a bad name,” says Rockefeller. “Throwing pots and pans around in frustration does not make for a good role model.”

By the time lunch hour rolls around, the cafeteria is stocked with the day’s menu and colourful plated samples artfully advertise the offerings. Students work cash, gaining further employability skills as they navigate the Point of Sale system and balance the tills. The kitchen is clean, and ready to go for the next day. But before that, Rockefeller does the behind-the-scenes preparations necessary to keep a full-scale commercial kitchen going, checking inventory levels, ordering ingredients from suppliers, and balancing the books. Since everything is prepared from scratch, sourcing ingredients can be challenging, but the program’s Sysco rep is very supportive and able to drop prices on certain things. Rockefeller and Fordham also check local grocery stores for deals daily.

“Tomorrow at 9 a.m., the magic all happens again,” says Rockefeller of the programs’ start time.

Magic is a good word for what happens. It’s not just molecular gastronomy that explains it, but the tone and atmosphere created by the program and the school’s leaders.

“The staff and students here really do make it an incredible place,” says Rockefeller. “I’ve received nothing but encouragement and support in my career, and I want students to leave here having had a meaningful and worthwhile experience, too.”

So at the end of a long work day, what’s the meal of choice for someone with vast knowledge of culinary arts and the ability to impart those skills onto others?

“Bacon and eggs,” says Rockefeller. “Bacon and eggs makes everything better.”