The ‘farm to fork’ movement is no longer a novelty on Vancouver Island. More and more restaurants are getting their ingredients directly from nearby farms. Now there is another link in that equation, involving the education of young chefs.
I think we are quite fortunate here on Vancouver Island to have a choice in Culinary Programs for students interested in a career in a kitchen. The choice just got even more interesting for students in the Culinary Institute of Vancouver Island at Vancouver Island University. April 25th, 2013 marks the first evening members of the public will be able to sample student offerings at the new Farm Table Dining Room at Providence Farm near Duncan. It’s not a brand new restaurant, but it does mark a formal arrangement made between Providence Farm and the University to use the existing kitchen and dining rooms facilities at the farm.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, people will be able to go to Providence Farm and enjoy meals made by Culinary Institute students. But it’s not a simple rental agreement, there was a fair amount of negotiation to get it going. I went to a reception marking the beginning of the collaboration last week, and talked to Chef Allen Aikman, the chair of the culinary program and an instructor as well. He says the dining room and kitchen at Providence Farm is meant mostly to feed lunches to the staff and volunteers at the farm. The idea of running a restaurant at the same time was never discussed when the kitchen was renovated a few years ago. But here they are, and they will come in at 3pm on the days they operate and transform the kitchen that had just served a buffet lunch, into a restaurant kitchen and serve plated meals to folks in the dining room, taking advantage of the produce grown on the farm, grown in some cases with their help: “Just the other day some of the students were out in the garden transplanting some seedlings, and we’re going to be here through the best months of the year when there is so much great produce. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about how ingredients are produced. People talk about the ‘hundred mile menu’, we’re right here at ground zero.”
I also spoke with VIU president Ralph Nilson. He told me that when they were doing a review of all the programs at the university, the culinary program really stood out as a success, but the review also recommended that it be expanded. With the Cowichan Campus as part of the Culinary Institute, in what Nilson calls ‘a foodie valley’ the opportunity to run a restaurant nearby a few days a week seems like a great way to invest in the program and the community.
Peter Bontkes, the chair of the Providence Farm Board of Directors, admitted that they had a few reservations when the idea was put forward. For people who don’t know, the primary function of Providence Farm is to help people in the community who are facing some sort of challenge. The farm runs some very good therapeutic programs, and they just wanted to make sure the restaurant could fit into the mix. He told me that they get proposals to develop many programs or opportunities at Providence Farm but they have to scrutinize each proposal to make sure they don’t crowd out the key functions. In this case they were satisfied with the way the Culinary Institute was going to operate the restaurant.