Nurturing the talent pipeline: Le Cordon Bleu sees sign-ups rise as demand for chefs rises

During a 28-year career with the Canadian Forces, serving twice in Afghanistan, Dean Sackett had his share of stressful days.

Now that he’s retired, he’s taking on a challenge he’ll tell you first, not even to a grizzled military veteran: learning how to julienne meats and veggies the right way.

“It’s definitely been a change of pace, but I’ve really enjoyed it,” says the 53-year-old former soldier of his first few months at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Ottawa. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Sackett is one of a growing number of professionals from other fields who have decided to switch careers and go back to school to pursue their love of cooking. Le Cordon Bleu says it is seeing a spike in applications from mid-career workers seeking an industry hungry for qualified chefs after dozens of chefs sidelined during the pandemic left the industry for other jobs .

“I have lawyers, accountants, HR executives, people with military backgrounds – people from all walks of life on Cordon Bleu’s only North American campus.

“The common denominator here is that they must have a passion for culinary arts. That’s what keeps them going.”

Requests are pouring in

About 90 students are now enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, a figure that fell a bit during the pandemic but is now rising again. With eateries across the city ramping up their personalized service as COVID restrictions end, Sharma says his office gets at least three or four requests a week from restaurants looking for graduates to start right away.

“It’s a market for workers,” he says.

For Sackett, who retired from the military in 2014 and now works for the federal government’s Communications Security Establishment as a training development specialist, hiring in the restaurant industry couldn’t have come at a better time.

Veterans Affairs Canada recently updated its scholarship program for ex-servicemen looking to train for a second career to include courses like Le Cordon Bleu’s. Given the cost of the school’s 12-week basic kitchen certificate — $11,700 — Sackett jumped at the chance to get the government to foot the bill so he could pursue his lifelong passion.

“It’s quite reassuring to know that I probably won’t have to search too hard to find a job.”

“I’ve always had a love for cooking,” Hackett says. “I think I would describe myself as a passionate home cook.

“It’s just a lucky moment that now and hopefully still by the time I graduate, there are a lot of opportunities. It’s quite reassuring to know that I probably won’t have to search too hard to find a job.”

The kitchen’s appeal also proved too much to resist for Sackett’s classmate Sam Bruce, a graduate of Kingston’s Royal Military College who served in the Air Force for 14 years before joining Air Canada as a commercial pilot in 2006.

During his downtime, Bruce would worry about the Globe and MailWednesday’s art section, try as many recipes as he could to scratch his culinary itch.

“Cooking was a comfort to me,” explains the 48-year-old, who also attends the school under the Veterans Affairs scholarship program. “I loved the recipes, but I couldn’t always do it correctly because I didn’t really recognize the procedures and techniques.”

When COVID hit, Bruce was on medical leave and decided the time was right to learn from the pros.

Demanding routine

“It’s something I’ve always been interested in and something I hope to do when I retire, and it’s getting underway pretty quickly,” he says.

Still, like Sackett, he says Le Cordon Bleu’s demanding routine was an eye-opener.

Classes begin promptly at 8am with a three-hour session led by one of the school’s instructors, who demonstrate food preparation techniques while students diligently take notes – there are no written recipes. Later in the morning, it’s the students’ turn to try and repeat what they’ve seen, with kitchen exercises generally lasting until about 2:30 PM.

Testing is rigorous, including three exams per week. In addition, there are regular seminars on topics such as wine tasting and restaurant management.

“It’s pretty intense,” Bruce says with a smile. “It reminds me of pilot training, to be honest. You feel like you’ve worked an 18-hour workday at the end because you’re concentrating.

“It’s pretty stressful at first…but you learn some amazing things. And at the end we get to eat the food,” he adds with a laugh. “My waist doesn’t thank me for that.”

The basic course can be taken with an additional quarterly certification for intermediate and superior cuisine, with tuition for the total nine-month package totaling approximately $32,000.

Bruce says he has been struck by the eclectic backgrounds of his fellow students, including a student from China, a lawyer from Turkey and a dental hygienist from the US. But given the rising demand for skilled chefs, he says he is not surprised.

Foundation students recently took a field trip to the renowned Wellington Street restaurant Absinthe, which specializes in European cuisine. The chef told visitors that the kitchen is so understaffed that it takes as many as five cooks to return to full capacity.

“He said, ‘Send me anyone you can send me,'” Bruce says. “There are so many opportunities.”

Leave a Comment