Teaching Agro-Literacy to Chefs

Photo by Jared Sych

SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary has some unique things going on within its Culinary Arts programs. Tom Bornhorst, the Dean of Hospitality and Tourism provided us with a recent tour of their facilities, which includes a well maintained vegetable garden, a charcuterie lab, public market, dining room, breakfast bar, patisserie and equipment galore ranging from wood ovens, steamers, rotisseries and freezers to meat cutters, fryers and blow torches (chefs apparently use this to add a browning effect and visual appeal to their signature dishes). Bornhorst has an obvious passion for food and a notable generosity of spirit. I first met up with him at a meeting announcing the new Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, an organization with the clear mandate of promoting Alberta’s food (producers and chefs) to the world. The son of a butcher, with experience in meat cutting and hospitality, he longs to expose SAIT’s culinary students to all aspects of food – taking into account such things as where their food came from, how it was produced, how it was processed, different factors affecting taste and the principles of
art and architecture.

“Our students graduate with a very broad and thorough understanding of food. We provide them with the tools necessary to work with food in various different environments. It’s amazing how valuable knowledge of art, architecture and sustainability can be for a chef”, he says.

This philosophy of broader-thinking is quite commonplace with the award-winning Culinary Arts faculty members. In 2010, Andrew Hewson, an instructor and past recipient of the Cadmus Foundation Trades Teaching Chair award, approached the Dean with an idea on how to bring culinary students physically closer to their ingredients. “If they need thyme in a recipe, they should be able to identify it in a garden”, says Hewson. And so it was created. The on-campus culinary garden is maintained and used for on-site food preparation in the dining room, breakfast and lunch bar. And the retail shelves of their market are stocked with student-made jams, jellies and condiments.

“Our approach to teaching embodies what we call agro-literacy. By weaving agricultural messaging into our teachings, we are creating chefs with a greater appreciation for food and a tighter connection to their ingredients”, says Bornhorst.

This fall, when classes start up again, farm tours will resume, a downtown Campus will open in Calgary and the school will officially open its new charcuterie lab. Said to be one of the few of its kind in North America, the lab will be equipped with steam kettles, sausage makers, and curing equipment. “There’s a real trend in charcuteries among restaurants and foodies”, says Bornhorst, “This is not a fad”. And judging from the school’s Culinary Arts waiting list, this school is right on top of the trends.

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