Eleanor had distributed pamphlets describing the work of the Stratford Chef’s School prior to the meeting. After thanking Pat for the opportunity to present, she spoke of the dearth of really good eateries in Stratford from the origins of the Theatre in 1956 to 1977, such that most patrons elected to dine in other cities. In 1977, Joe Mandel launched the Church Restaurant, Jim Morris opened Rundles and Eleanor Kane and Marion Isherwood started a tearoom, the Old Prune. All three ventures had difficulty staffing their restaurants, due to a lack of trained chefs.
A meeting of minds and means occurred when John Evans introduced Aubrey Hagar of Conestoga College who shared a vision of developing the Hospitality Program of the college to aim higher to produce highly qualified chefs. The Stratford Chef’s School was launched in 1983 with independent status so that they could extend the semester from 12 weeks to 16 weeks. It distinguished itself from other college programs by becoming restaurant-focused rather than institutional (cafeterias, hospitals) or catering. Their three-star kitchens featured classical cooking and deviated from traditional classrooms of watching a Master Chef prepare a dish to ‘learn to do by doing’. The school grew from 14 students in 1983 to 25 in 1985 and currently stands at 70 students per year. The first graduating class of 1985 included such Stratford names as Ruth Klassen, Breen Bently, and Terry Manzo.
They were able to obtain charitable status, which helped with fund-raising to support the additional 4 weeks of learning. These fund-raisers tended to be held in a top Toronto restaurant and attended by an exuberant crowd of food and wine lovers, based on the cuisine of Georges August Escoffier, the father of French cooking. In 2011, the fund-raising came home to Stratford in the form of Long Table Dinners, Strawberry Fair (at Knox Presbyterian Church) and featured silent auctions.
Starting in the mid-1990’s rules concerning charitable status changed and the Advisory Board morphed into the Governance Committee. At the time of her retirement in 2013 and Jim Morris’s retirement in 2014, the capital fund stood at $140,000. The future of the school was at a crossroads and a dedicated facility was required. The Board included Nigel Howard, Tim Leonard, David Stones, Ryan Donovan and Kathy Vassilakos.
The success of the Long Table Dinners can be measured in part by attendance; in the first year 50% of attendees came from Stratford, and this year 90% were local, suggesting that Stratford ‘owns’ the Chefs School. The current highly visable location on Ontario St contributes to integrating the school more firmly into the community. Holding the graduation ceremonies at the Stratford Festival links these two important venues and contributes to making the school truly ’Stratford’. In addition, cooking classes open to the public have aided in integrating the school. This location offers a level 1 kitchen dedicated to pastry making and a level 2 kitchen that is open to the dining room. While the school is carrying significant debt related to the creation of this facility, a positive factor was that it enabled the school to store their treasure-trove of china, flatware and glassware to suit any menu in one convenient locale.
The school has featured many guest chefs including Karl Heinrich of Richmond Station, Ryan Donovan, Frances Latham of Latham and Smith, and alumni such as Francisco Alejandro (Class of ’01). Gabrielle Hamilton serves as a Gastronomic Writer in Residence to help students produce blogs and other writing. Andrew George introduced aboriginal cooking, featuring foods harvested in season and cooking camps for kids.
The students bring iPads to school at the start of the semester, which are loaded with calanders and all of the recipes they will require.
Second year students prepare SCS dinners open to the public, which have proven to be very popular and require early reservations to assure a seat.
Bev Symons thanked Eleanor for her interesting story of the origins and growth of the Chef’s School, and announced that the honorarium had been directed to the Scholarship Fund.