“Competition was very intense,” said Andrew George Jr., Journeyman Cook / Chef, when he recalled the 1991 Culinary Olympics in Germany where the Native Canadian Haute Cuisine Team rocked the competition. At these Games, it is a race against your opponents and the clock. As with the Jamaican Bob Sled Team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the Native cuisine team entered the Culinary Olympics as unknowns. A significant difference between them is the Native team had their cultural traditions from First Nations across Canada guiding them along their journey.
Andrew’s team mates were upcoming Aboriginal Chefs Bertha Skye from Six Nations, Arnold Olson from Saskatchewan, Brian Sappier from New Brunswick, and David Wolfman of Toronto (who now has a show on APTN called “Cooking with the Wolfman”). As unknowns, this team rocked the competition where 13,000 Chefs from 54 countries competed. The Aboriginal team fused their knowledge of Indigenous foods with modern methods and ingredients to earn seven gold, two silver and two bronze medals. The team became heroes and role models to the Aboriginal community just as professional hockey players often are to young boys.
Similar to sports, Andrew says cooking is a trade where, “Like the Olympics, whether it is winter, summer or the Special Olympics, it takes a special talent to do what you are doing.”
Who would have thought that cooking would be as competitive as sports, and that cooking shows would be as popular among young people today as the Olympics. Television shows like “The Iron Chef” and “Hell’s Kitchen” have become as popular to youth today as “Happy Days” and “Beverly Hills 90210” were to other generations.
Culinary Arts though is a competition in which anyone with the love of food and the knack for creativity and perfection can achieve success. NPR Radio host Neal Conan said that to be a great Chef you need to “Combine equal parts imagination and training. Add a heaping dash of talent. Top it off with the ability to stand over a hot stove for hours. And don’t forget a passion for food.”
For Andrew, his passion for cooking began as a child. Growing up in Northern BC, Andrew is one of six children of WWII veteran and hereditary Chief Andrew George Sr. As is the responsibility of a Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief, the young Andrew grew up walking the families’ traditional lands, learning how to care for them and the responsibilities of a hereditary Chief to ensure the continuation of cultural values, traditions and ways. Andrew Jr. learned trapping, hunting, fishing and harvesting, and how to prepare salmon, deer, elk, rabbit, and berries using cultural methods, all by watching his mother. “She is an excellent cook,” says Andrew. His grandmother taught him at age five to make bannock.
Andrew learned that, “Food in the feast hall, is WHO we are.” The quality of food you produce and serve at the feast shows your wealth and how well you fulfill your cultural responsibility. Andrew says, “When you look after the land, the land will look after you.” To him, being a chef for 24 years helps him to bring hunting and gathering into the modern era. He says, “A huckleberry is the same to a First Nation person as the olive to an Italian or Greek.”
The teachings of his parents and grandparents prepared Andrew Jr. for induction as hereditary Chief in 1998, and he was given the name Skit’den meaning “the wise man”, which equipped him as a role model for other aspiring Aboriginal chefs. Andrew’s leadership was recognized by the Industry Training Authority in 2008 when he was named Aboriginal “Top in Trades”.
When Andrew was in Junior High, he began cooking for his household of five siblings and his parents. One would have thought it was a ploy to get out of doing dishes, but Andrew proved this theory wrong when he took summer jobs in mining camps and restaurants cooking, and then in 1983 enrolled in the Vancouver Vocational Institute in cook training for Core-Short Order Cook, Institutional, Camp Cooking and the A La Carte program. His apprenticeship training was done at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), with the required employment experience gained through various Vancouver hotels and restaurants, eventually progressing to the high end gourmet kitchens of the Four Seasons Hotel and Chateau Whistler Resort. When Vancouver hosted Expo ’86, Andrew celebrated First Nations foods as the head grill cook for the Folk Life Pavilion First Nations Restaurant. Then, in 1989, Andrew became a Journeyman Red Seal Cook.
Hallmark events like Expo ’86, the Culinary Olympics, and Winter Olympics have been a step in the careers of other Aboriginal people who have taken Culinary Arts training. Industry Training Authority Senior Aboriginal Lead, Gary McDermott, began his post-secondary life by successfully completing his Level 1 Cook’s training. Those skills came in handy during the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics where he and his classmates operated a food stand at the International Pin-Trading Centre serving buffalo burgers, blueberry bannock and other Aboriginal treats. Today, Gary works at the ITA and is responsible for ensuring the provincial Aboriginal Apprenticeship Strategy is developed in collaboration with the Aboriginal community and makes trades training more accessible to Aboriginal people all over BC.
The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics also promises aspiring Aboriginal chefs a chance to show off their culinary talents in the Four Host First Nations (FHFN) Aboriginal Pavilion Restaurant. The restaurant will be operated in conjunction with Vancouver Community College (VCC), who have partnered with the FHFN to offer Aboriginal cuisine prepared by Aboriginal people who have trained in the VCC Aboriginal Culinary Chef program.
Cooking does not require starting at the age of five with long hours at a rink or ski hill. Instead, to become a Red Seal Cook or a journeyperson, registration in a four year apprenticeship program, and at least 5,400 work-based training hours under the supervision of a certified cook (sponsored by either that employer or Aboriginal organization) is all that is needed. The training can start at any age.
Today BC high school students are getting a head start in apprenticeship programs through the ITA youth programs. The Secondary School Apprenticeship (SSA) and ACE-IT programs let youth earn credits while in school getting a head start on their apprenticeship with the SSA program letting youth earn up to 480 hours of work experience. In 2008/09, 37 BC School Districts, delivered the SSA and ACE-IT programs to nearly 5,000 high school students. One of those schools was Chalo School, a school situated on Fort Nelson First Nation.
The cook trade allows you to choose the level you want to reach with Level 3 being the highest and offering Red Seal Cook designation which will enable you to work anywhere in Canada. Many cooks go on to become professional chefs, like Andrew.
In Haida Gwaii, the Old Massett Village Council (OMVC) has started Year 2 of Culinary Arts / Cook training for 11 of its Aboriginal citizens. The program is funded by the ITA through the Canada-BC Labour Market Agreement (LMA). Others in Old Massett interested in cook training can speak with Patricia Moore at 250-626-3337 about enrolment.
The LMA funding program allows organizations like the OMVC and the Kla-how-eya Surrey Aboriginal Cultural Society (SACS) to offer financial support and benefits to enable underemployed people to participate in training programs, particularly when they are unable to qualify for other support or face financial barriers that deter them from entering training.
Another LMA-funded program, the Kla-how-eya SACS started September 21, 2009. The 16-week pre-apprentice Kla-how-eya Culinary Arts Program has Andrew George as Instructor and Program Coordinator. It helps Aboriginal students explore and develop a comprehensive understanding of basic culinary techniques blended with traditional Aboriginal cooking methods, ingredients and practices.
There are many other cook training programs available province-wide, as well other foods-related trades like baker and meatcutter training programs. Skilled tradespeople like these and in all occupations are needed in every BC region.
Start Your Course as a Journeyperson Cook – Visit the ITA website to learn how: www.itabc.ca
Established in 2004, the Industry Training Authority (ITA) is charged with the responsibility of managing BC’s trades training system to develop the province’s skilled workforce. As a provincial crown agency, the ITA works collaboratively with Aboriginal communities and agencies, industry, training providers, career counsellors, labour unions, government and others. The ITA has made a special commitment to finding career opportunities in trades for Aboriginal people, youth, women and immigrants. An Aboriginal Advisory Committee counsels the ITA on matters related to increasing Aboriginal participation in apprenticeship training. Funding for the Aboriginal Initiative is provided under the Canada-BC Labour Market Agreement.