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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Food History at the 
Stratford Chefs School
Stratford, Ontario
Fall, 2013

Stratford Chefs School

    Some of you may wonder where I disappeared to during the autumn. I am finishing my dissertation right now, so that is consuming most of my time. Beyond thesis, I was also spending my time in the beautiful town of Stratford, Ontario, at the prestigious Stratford Chefs School teaching a course on food history.

    SCS is, by far, one of the most respected culinary schools in Canada. Founded in 1982 by two entrepreneurial restaurateurs, Eleanor Kane and James Morris, the school was founded specifically to offer culinary apprenticeship training to those who wished to own their own restaurants. While many colleges at the time were focusing only on cooking itself, James and Eleanor recognized that there was a need for a culinary school that could train students in a more holistic panorama of cooking, management, and serving skills that one would need in the course of running their own business. Thirty years later, the school has produced chefs who staff many of the top restaurants in Canada (not to mention Chef Carl Heinrich, winner of Top Chef Canada 2012).

    It isn't by accident that prospective cooks are attracted to SCS. The town itself is small (pop. 30,000) and surrounded by some of the most fertile land in Ontario. The local farmers market has a wonderful selection of vendors, many of whom produce their own heirloom varieties of vegetables, traditional German charcuterie, as well as those tables full of baked goods that I can never seem to walk away from empty-handed. Beyond the beautiful surroundings, Eleanor and James have worked hard over the years to preserve and augment the program in order to stay ahead of current culinary and restaurant trends. In addition to the practical cookery and baking classes that form the core of the program, the school also hosts food writers, guest celebrity chefs, restaurant designers, and even movement instructors in order to expose apprentices to industry professionals from whose experience they can draw upon in their own culinary formation.

   As time went on, Eleanor added a food history course to the curriculum and instituted the now famous "historic cooking practical exam". Working with Eleanor, students developed menus derived from primary historic texts, presenting their dishes to classmates and faculty at the end of the course. Eleanor even arranged for students to borrow props and decor from the stores of the world-renowned Stratford Festival, affording them the opportunity to decorate their tables in a manner reminiscent of the period of their exam. The exam has been modified slightly over the years, and came to take it's present form under a later food history instructor, Jennifer Laurie. Today the "historic cooking practical exam" requires students to divide into 6-8 groups representing the periods that we have examined during the course - Classical Antiquity, Medieval, Renaissance, Haute, Modern, Native Canadian etc. - and to develop a menu derived from original sources, presented to the class and faculty along with an explanation of cooking methods and  rationale behind the menu.

    With so much excitement about the course, I decided to e-mail and see if there was anything I could do to take part. One thing led to another and I was hired to co-teach with Jen Laurie Gastronomy I, Food in History. Jen and I began by researching current food historiography, writing a 180 page text for the course so that the history of cooks was highlighted alongside that of ingredient and recipe history, followed by design of new curriculum and lectures. The course was most enjoyable because the students at SCS are remarkably engaged in their studies. Since the school fosters an entrepreneurial spirit, students were ready and willing to try new things and to greet the cookery of our ancestors with enthusiasm. I truly was impressed with the students and their easy-going, practical approach to highly complex historical issues. 

    I was highly impressed with the faculty, the students, and the school as a whole. Eleanor and James have created something very special at SCS; something I highly recommend prospective culinary apprentices to look into. 

Preparation Begins

They're bringing history back to life!

Native Canadian group

Bean and prosciutto soup (from Scappi)

Herb & ricotta tortellini (Scappi)

Glazed trout (Escoffier)

Duck confit (Escoffier)

 By: Ryan Whibbs

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