Hola de México!

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A semi-formal dining event at George Brown College to execute a seven-course dinner, showcasing El Catrin’s Mexican fare executed by Executive Chef, Olivier Le Calvez, Chef de Partie Leonardo Olvera and myself, Sous Chef Donovan Gomes, in collaboration with George Brown College students.

The opportunity to provide hands on experience and educate students to the real-life culinary world. To exhibit through them the motions of planning, preparation and execution, while experiencing the intensity of focus, discipline, efficiency, respect and reward for both the food and themselves.

The day started at six a.m., I was going over the notes from the previous few days, making sure I gathered and prepped all that I needed. Chef Olivier joined me around nine a.m., singing something in Spanish, his usual jolly self, walks past me and hands over an Americano & Chocolate croissant. Much needed boost in the morning. We came together and went over the day ahead once again, just to make sure, exchanged a high five and started to load the van.

The El Catrin Chef’s pulled up by noon to the double doors on Frederick St. that led into the beautiful restaurant “The Chefs House” at George Brown College. They were about to commence lunch service. We quietly creeped down the side stairs to the basement like silhouettes where we about to prep for the next three hours or so, but first the calling for yet another fresh cup of brew.

The prep area downstairs was well maintained and intimate, where everything was at arms reach. The three of us worked through the menu with precision, with no stone unturned. Having organized lists leaves almost no room for error. We were focused and determined to give the students and our guests an amazing Mexican culinary experience, showcasing all the vibrant flavours of which some took days to prepare.

During our time spent preparing for dinner service, we were greeted by an array of chefs, managers & faculty from George Brown College. Needless to say, the were unbelievably kind and thoughtful with their presence and hospitality. Chef Rusin, a professor at the college, came by and informed us that we would be accommodating five to six students that would be our “hands” for the next couple of hours.

This was the best part of my experience, to be able to see the innocence yet eagerness of these students embracing the idea of working with ingredients of a cuisine which may be foreign to them. Before you know it, the cutting boards were down, sharp knives were out and off they went with specific tasks assigned to them, overseen by us chefs.

screenshotTo give them a sense of what real world kitchens would expect of them, we treated them just like any of our cooks with respect & professionalism, showing them where they were going wrong and how to improve, setting timelines on assigned tasks to feel the sense of discipline and urgency. This along with getting to bond with them through short conversations about their background and future culinary interests. Time flies when your having fun doing what you love and with a few blinks of an eye, it was time to take our prepared foods upstairs and get ready for dinner service.

“Chef please take your food up the elevator!!” exclaimed Chef Rusin. Elevator I thought?? This was quite the privilege, these students have it made. State of the art facility, from combi-ovens and smokers to blenders, mixers, dehydrators and much more. It is great to know that these future Chefs are trained to use modern, state of the art equipment to create beautiful food with efficiency and accuracy.

The dining room upstairs was well lit, tables and chairs aligned, serviettes and utensils all squared up, wine glasses absolutely transparent and glistening, all this with the smooth sound of Mexican Mariachi in air. The kitchen was handed to us immaculately clean and polished from lunch service. It was time to get down to business.

The students for the nights service were assigned specific stations as per their instructor and we were to work with them accordingly. Two to three per station, so I took a moment and divided the remaining final touches of prep and distributed them accordingly, with Chef Leonardo, to oversee. All was going as planned. It was now time to discuss plating options and final presentations with El Jefe, Chef Olivier.

With forty minutes left before the arrival of our guests, we decided to plate one of each dish to accomplish many things, giving the students, servers and managers alike an idea of how the ingredients come together on the plate, allowing them to visualize, smell and eventually taste but not before Chef Olivier has the opportunity to tell the story behind the food, the purpose of the event and last but not least the appreciation of the students and chefs joining forces to bring everything together and to respect the efforts put forth by all that came through to make this night happen.

The food was well received by all partaking in the service. The servers seemed confident with explaining the dishes after having tried it. All questions handled with grace by Chef Olivier. Guests are slowly trickling through the doors. Its Showtime.

These students showed nerves of excitement more than fear of not being able to perform. Looked like they may have done this a few times now, which was great for me. Everyone had their game face on, Chefs Olivier and Leonardo keeping eye contact with me at all times so that we are on the same page come what may. We split the students equally amongst us three and moved them around depending on where we could expose them to the food and service, the most.

We also had the company, brains and brawn of our very own Corporate Executive Chef, Tim Miles. His keen eye from a drone like – panoramic view allows room for no mistakes. Not to mention his attention to every little detail during service from plates to food to people involved, always questioning the next move, three steps ahead. Keeping quality control and being hands on with cutting, cooking, tasting and plating, this man does it all. Gratifying to say the least.

I made sure that all the students had their hands involved with the food throughout the nine courses, from canapes to dessert. The Chefs demonstrated one or two plates and let the students do the rest, with us guiding their every movement. Every student took charge of at least one element that went on a plate. Their faces so intense and eyes focused to the details from the example set for them.

There isn’t a single service in my entire culinary career, where there a curveball is thrown at you and because of those repeated past experiences, what came next was handled with ease. After years of practice, the ability to think on your feet with what you have in front of you becomes second nature.

Out of forty-nine guests of which originally none had any allergies or restrictions to a pre-fixed menu previously viewed, there happened to be three of them that night with particulars, two with shellfish allergies and one with a fish allergy. We whipped up delicious alternatives for them, a corn and ancho chili risotto, a couple of Red snapper ceviche’s and a Confit heirloom tomato and Charred tomatillo ceviche. All was received well and appreciated by those guests. This was also an eye opener for the students to see what can change during a planned service.

After the desserts were out, we all came together for a swift clean up whilst our Chef Olivier said a few words of gratitude to the guests and student for making this night a successful event, and plan for more to come. We all took pictures and exchanged contact information with the students, with hopes to run into each other again someday. It’s a small culinary world after all.

Back downstairs again, packing up all of what was left from the night. I was out the door to bring the company van, when I thought to myself I’m sure the chefs could use a nice cup of brew, so I stumbled next door and picked up three Americanos, it was now approaching nine-thirty p.m. We said our goodbyes once all packed up and headed back to the mothership.

Driving home I thought about the day and how productive, educational and memorable it was to share my experiences with students who will one day turn out to be amazing Chefs, as long as they keep at it. I would do this all over again to be able to give back from where I once started. It is now midnight. Zzzzzz.

by Chef Donovan Gomes.

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