Five-year-old Austin Clement hardly noticed the fire alarm. He was too intent on making breakfast for his dad. It wasn’t until his dad rushed into the kitchen that Clement, standing on an upside-down milk crate and peering into a pan of bacon, realized something was amiss. Still, to Austin there was nothing unnatural about a little boy cooking for his father.
Clement, now a famous chef and restaurateur, loves telling that story because it sums up his culinary philosophy: cooking isn’t a career—it’s a calling.
It’s this emphasis on craft, along with a commitment to excellence, that Clement tries to instill in the 300-plus students who attend the Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College. The efforts have paid off. The institute is one of the most lauded culinary-arts programs on the globe. In fact, its acclaim is so far-reaching that Prince William and Princess Kate stopped on Prince Edward Island to munch on the food created by Culinary Institute students during their postnuptial travels in July 2011.
Clement says a mix of vision and an unwavering belief in its product transformed this obscure vocational college into a world-class institute that attracts students from around the world.
“It’s a faith in your product, your students, and the track record you’ve built as a school,” says Clement, who serves as the program manager of Holland College’s culinary and hospitality programs. “We finally had to say to ourselves, ‘It’s go big, or go home.’”
The school opened in 1983, after an informal meeting of local chefs, tourism bigwigs, and local businessmen from Prince Edward Island came up with a plan to revamp the cooking courses at the local vocational school. Twenty-seven students enrolled, and before the first class graduated, the school had won the Taste of Canada competition. The school continued to grow, but in 1996 it came to a turning point.
“We knew that if we were going to continue to grow, it would take a tremendous amount of investment, and in 1996 a decision was made to buy a new campus and do a multimillion-dollar expansion,” Clement says. “At that point, the institute exploded on a national scale, making it the most up-to-date culinary school in Canada. We started to attract more students, and we’ve been growing ever since.”
Ten years later, the school made another critical decision that raised its profile and separated it from its peers. School administrators lobbied for a four-year applied degree in culinary operations so that they could teach the business of food as well as how to create it. Legislation had to be changed for the college to offer a degree that is usually only given out by four-year institutions.
The new degree—the only of its kind in Canada—and a focus on winning global competitions, trendy coursework, and customer service has led to much success for the Culinary Institute of Canada. In the last decade, the institute has won two golds and two silvers in the Culinary Olympics, as well as a world championship. In addition, the institute has produced world-renowned corporate and restaurant chefs, including David Garcelon, Andrew Ihasz, Cory Ledrew, Alex Porter, Greg Reid, Cheryl Scantlebury, and Francesco Roccata. It was even named one of the top 50 culinary assets of Canada by Foodservice and Hospitality magazine. But in the end, the institute’s success is that it doesn’t cultivate cooks but creates chefs with a soulful connection to food.
“It’s not about the mechanics or the flash in the pan,” Clement says. “It’s about the connection the food makes with the people; when our students make that connection, it’s in their soul, and they won’t forget it.”