CNC alumni chef finds success

The Culinary Arts program at the College of New Caledonia has the steak, not just a lot of sizzle.

The CNC chef's training department brought back one of their own this week to show aspiring cuisine crafters just how hot their careers might turn out to be.

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Former graduate Garrett Blundell was back at his alma mater as a special guest judge in the Skills Canada Central Interior Regional Skills Competition for high school and college students.

It wasn't that long ago he was one of them, but now he is the head chef of Vancouver's applauded French bistro Tableau.

He got there via a training stint with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurant collection in England.

"It all started - I know this sounds cliche - with my grandmother's cooking. She would make these huge family meals, she would work so hard on preparing food, and seeing that smile it put on her face, seeing her enjoy that work so much and then tasting what she made... it made a big impression on me," he said.

He got a job in his youth in the kitchen of a Prince George Boston Pizza location. It wasn't a position that gave him unbridled creative control, but it turned up the heat on his simmering interest in the kitchen professions.

Based on that, he successfully applied for a spot in CNC's Culinary Arts program and that was the ingredient he needed to kick it up a notch.

"Ron Christian (head instruction chef) was such a big support. He showed me I had talent, and encouraged me to try to go out and pursue that," said Blundell.

He went to the Lower Mainland to begin his professional pursuits and got employment in a kitchen there for a period of time before moving to an opportunity in Victoria. He went next into the heart of Vancouver, but again was on a path upwards and outwards.

He heard London calling, and when a chance to apprentice in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay beamed in on him, he tuned into the MasterChef personality's programming. Ramsay was not frequently personally present in those establishments, but he did come and go and make his presence felt. Working in such a definitive culinary hub of the world, and working for the first time under the high-pressure Michelin Guide rating system for hotels and restaurants, changed his view of the cooking trade. He saw more potential and more fulfillment options than ever before.

His next ship to come in was an offer he was floated to work in the kitchens of a Disney Cruiselines ship, so he set sail for the Caribbean. It gave him six intensive months of another kind of food production altogether.

"But British Columbia is always home for me, so I had to come back," he said. He was carrying a lot of experience by then, so he was called upon to be part of the startup of a brand new restaurant, the Homer Street Cafe, and the results of that moved him right into the top position of Tableau.

"It's a different set of responsibilities," said Blundell.

"It's not so much a knife in my hand for eight hours a day. You also have to oversee staff, develop the menu, source the ingredients, all the business side of setting up labour and a responsible budget and maintaining the reputation level that Tableau has set for itself in the marketplace. It is known for local food sourcing, and top-grade modern interpretations of traditional French cuisine traditions."

The foundational French tradition is not so much specific dishes, it is about making all elements on the plate from scratch, from chef-inspected ingredients sourced close to the kitchen. The longer it takes an ingredient to go from farm gate to butcher's block, be it a lamb chop or a gooseberry, the less flavourful and less nutritious it becomes.

What British Columbia has going for it, said Blundell, "and British Columbians don't even really get this yet, themselves - the world doesn't get it yet," is how rich in those ingredients this place is. B.C. is approaching Tuscany or Provence levels of interesting food production. He said it has been a quiet movement, but those in the kitchens of B.C. know very well how exciting the farms of B.C. are becoming. There is still a world of possibilities still to come in that field, he speculated, and the B.C. agriculture industry are already at star status.

"One of the reasons I agreed to come do this for CNC is to say thank you to them, and give them whatever I can to give back for what they did for me, but another reason I'm here is to hopefully do what I can to inspire these young people who are showing interest in the culinary profession. I want to show them what it could turn into, for them. I want to inspire them to stick with it and learn the trade, and go for it. It's an exciting job, it's an industry with a bright future, and it's a creative environment. Most trades can't say that. There's actually some exploitative aspects to the industry because of that, I have to say, in all truth. Any time there is an art quality to your job, there are bosses who will try to take advantage of that, pay you less, but that's not the main thing. The main thing is, if you aspire to work in quality kitchens or do inspired work with food, it's a great career."

Blundell said he sees his future culinary aspirations including Prince George. He looks at his hometown with excitement, but he still has some personal goals to achieve at Tableau first.

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