October 30, 2020

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P.E.I. entry-level cooks program back in the kitchen after COVID-19 pause

More than a dozen cook trainees on P.E.I. are back in the kitchen after COVID-19 forced a six-month pause to their education. 

The free entry-level cook training program is offered by the Tourism Industry Association of Prince Edward Island and the Culinary Institute of Canada, with funding from Skills P.E.I. 

The goal is to train cooks to work in Island kitchens and help restaurants fill their labour gaps.

“Not a two-year graduate, not a chef, but someone who can come in at a very entry level,” said Austin Clement, program manager at the Culinary Institute. “Someone who understands food safety, somebody who understands the sense of urgency, preparation of small little sandwiches, soup, salads — that sort of thing.” 

Demand from restaurants

Clement said the program was launched in 2019 at the request of the food service industry on P.E.I., which was struggling to find enough staff. “In the past, certainly, there have been challenges with working conditions and wages, but that’s improved somewhat over the course of time,” Clement said. “The explosion we’ve had here as Canada’s Food Island, we’ve seen more restaurants, very good restaurants, built a reputation for food. We’re filling a need as volume increases.”

The first training program in 2019 had 16 participants, and five of them have continued their training at the Culinary Institute. 

This year’s program has 14 cooks in training, and all but four were in the program when the pandemic shut it down in March.

“It was a little disappointing. We missed out probably on a few important events that we were supposed to do now due to COVID,” said Kirsten Fisher-Compton, who travels to and from Lennox Island every day.

Fisher-Compton heard about the entry-level cook training program from her boss at Tyne Valley Teas Cafe, where she has worked for a couple of years. “Cooking really interests me. I’ve been really trying to get experience in every aspect I can,” Fisher-Compton said.

“I worked doing bakery and salad, sandwich things and now I’m trying the bistro side of things, so we’ll see how that goes.”

The participants do five weeks of on-the-job training and Fisher-Compton is hoping for a position with a “high-end” restaurant, somewhere in the Summerside area.

Fisher-Compton has applied to attend the Culinary Institute next year, with the ultimate goal of having her own food truck. 

‘It’s not easy’

Ryan Sankar was also signed up for the entry-level cook training program in February, after moving to P.E.I. from Trinidad and Tobago.

When the program was put on pause, Sankar spent the summer working under instructor Kyle Panton, getting his first taste of life in a kitchen.

“My biggest lesson I’ve learned is ‘don’t let the pressure get to you,'” Sankar said.

“This isn’t the place to come and just expect it to be easy. It’s not easy.” 

Sankar said the training program is also a chance for participants to find out what they think of the restaurant industry. 

“This course gives you an opportunity to see what a kitchen is like and it just shows you what pressure is like, what to expect, what not to expect,” Sankar said.

“And if you want to come to Holland College, to do this course first is a really good idea.” 

Program will continue

Instructor Kyle Panton is head chef at several Charlottetown restaurants.

“The returning ones, some of them were in the kitchen for the summer, so they have advanced quite a bit,” Panton said.

“It’s nice to see their progress.”

“It’s great to be back and it’s great just to see them; they’re wanting to be here,” Panton said.

“They could have not come back, so that just shows how much they want to get in the industry.” 

Clement said this year’s program will wrap up in December, with plans to offer it again as long as there is demand in the industry.

“We don’t know what things are going to look like after COVID, but we anticipate having a renewed need for workforce,” Clement said.

“It’s very important that we seed an interest in culinary and tourism and this is one area [where] we can do that.” 

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