Thompson didn’t have much of an appetite for Canadian dishes and even the Caribbean ingredients available at local markets didn’t taste quite the same.
Already self-reliant in the kitchen, he began experimenting with creative takes on that staple of the Canadian teenage diet – mac and cheese.
So it was a natural fit when – while exploring various extra-curricular options presented to him by his English teacher – he decided to apply for Red River College’s After School Leaders Culinary Training Program.
“It was something I enjoyed, something I wanted to reach further into,” says Thompson, 18. “I met this chef once on a plane and he was talking to me about it and it sounded really exciting. So learning to further my skills caught my attention.”
Now in its fifth year, the program introduces teens aged 14-18 to the fast-paced world of culinary arts. Participants learn from accomplished chefs about healthy food preparation and industry protocol in the atmosphere of a professional kitchen.
The four-month sessions have a significant time commitment: twice a week for four hours. The course impressed upon Thompson various industry expectations, not just in terms of technique and standards of practice, but also in relation to the demands of a bustling workplace.
“I think the biggest takeaway is understanding the demand for a chef [and knowing] what you should be: clean, timely, efficient, innovative or creative,” he explains. “You have to know how to be fast, but [also to] be safe at the same time.”
In addition to kitchen skills he acquired, Thompson also got the chance to hone such personal skills as communication, time management, and working with a team.
His creativity in the kitchen continues to flourish. To mark last fall’s Culture Days celebrations, he and a partner conceived of a fusion dish that combined their respective heritages. The dish – Cuban rice with Hong Shao Rou (Chinese pork belly) – was one part Caribbean, one part Asian.
“It was delicious,” he says with a smile. “When we finished, it was cleaned out.”
Thompson hopes to become a chef one day, and perhaps to own his own business. With the help of his After School Leaders instructors, he’s learned how to structure his resume to apply for culinary work in Canada.
Through the program, Thompson received both his Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System certification and his Food Handlers Certificate. He has already applied to several restaurants in Winnipeg and hopes to hear back soon.
After gaining some industry experience, Thompson says he’d consider enrolling in RRC’s full time Culinary Arts program, noting the After School Leaders initiative has given him a leg up.
To others considering a similar career path, Thompson says it’s important not to underestimate the time commitment required.
“For four hours of the day [you’re] just practicing cooking,” he says. “It’s nothing compared to the real industry. It’s definitely not something to take lightly. It isn’t something that you should only invest half your time in.”
But the gains clearly outweigh the time commitment.
“[The instructors] are very helpful and patient with us,” he says. “They told us stories from when they were just starting out. [The program] is awesome, the teachers are nice, and if you’re afraid of meeting new people, don’t be, because after a while you grow on each other, and you become just like a small community.”
— Profile by Kristin Marand (Creative Communications, 2004)