by Glen Herbert
Gabby Ollivierre’s first real experience of snow came with a freak storm that hit Calgary on October 2. It was notable by anyone’s standards–the storm made national news in Canada–though especially for someone from the islands who had yet to get a proper pair of boots. When I met her at the campus of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) two days prior, she was wearing flip flips. Why? “I just didn’t feel like wearing shoes,” she said. Fair enough.
Gabby grew up on the island, just as island kids do. It’s home, and when she completes her two-year degree in Calgary, she’ll go back, taking with her everything she’s learned. For the most part, that will be what she’s learned about cooking. This year–thanks to a foundation in partnership with the Grenadines Initiative–she enrolled in a professional cooking program, one that, in many ways, is one of a kind. I met with Richard Horbachewski, director of development for the college, in the Highwood, a full-service restaurant staffed entirely by students of program. “You’re sitting in a classroom,” he said. It’s one of four spaces–two on campus and two downtown–that many people visit without ever knowing that they’re in a teaching facility. The downtown culinary arts campus is housed within Calgary’s signature shopping mall, The Core, where students prepare and sell pastries, lunches, and prepared meals. And added last year, at the corner of 7th and 4th, is the Tastemarket, an urban eatery for downtown foodies which doubles as an innovative learning environment for budding entrepreneurs. All the spaces–the main and satellite facilities–are alike in that they don’t divide cooking from the business of cooking: nothing is made that isn’t intended for presentation and sale within one of these professional spaces.
It’s a unique environment, and one that Gabby is quickly integrating into. Though she’s only been in the program for a few weeks, when she walks me through the kitchens she interacts amiably with students and teachers, all wearing chefs hats and crisp white jackets. There’s a lovely collegiality, to be sure, but the program is all business. Gabby shows me her marks so far, all of which are delivered to her via an app on her phone. She’s been marked on everything from food prep, to making a hollandaise sauce, to knife skills. “I don’t like that one,” she says skipping past a mark for a pop quiz. The rest, though, are all As.
She’s proud, and she should be. Considered the best in Canada, the Professional Cooking program at SAIT is delivered by chefs who provide expert, hands-on training. In the next two years Gabby will train and interact with dozens of leading culinary professionals and hundreds of like-minded peers. It’s an amazing experience for anyone passionate about the culinary arts. “I don’t mean to brag, but, really, we are in the top 40 programs in the world,” says Horbachewski, “that said, we’re planning to be in the top 10 within the next decade.” Given the program development, and the creation of the new spaces, and the development of the faculty, they’re clearly very firmly on that path.
For Gabby, it’s a step along the way, taking something she loves, cooking, into a professional role through which she’ll share that love. In time, all going well, she’ll be working in a kitchen of her own one day, on Bequia. She’ll be serving great food, of course, but as the chefs she’s learning from tell her, it’s about more than that. It’s about sharing an experience. So, she’ll share her experiences, too. They’ll include those of moving to Canada for a time, working with others from around the world, and learning from some of the best. In there, too, will be the experience of a snowstorm, the one in early October not long after she arrived, the one that convinced her to get out, sooner rather than later, to buy some boots.