Feeding the talent pipeline: Le Cordon Bleu sees enrolment spike amid surging demand for chefs

Le Cordon Bleu
Le Cordon Bleu student Sam Bruce (foreground) prepares food under the watchful eye of instructor Thierry Le Baut at the renowned culinary college's campus on Laurier Avenue. Photo courtesy Le Cordon Bleu

During a 28-year career in the Canadian Armed Forces that saw him serve two stints in Afghanistan, Dean Sackett had his share of stressful days.

Now retired, he’s tackling a challenge that he’ll be the first to tell you is no walk in the park even for a grizzled military veteran: learning how to properly julienne meat and vegetables.

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

Sackett is one of a growing number of professionals from other fields who’ve decided to switch careers and return to school to pursue their love of cooking. Le Cordon Bleu says it’s seeing a spike in applications from mid-career workers looking to get into an industry that’s starved for qualified chefs after scores of cooks who were sidelined during the pandemic left the industry for other jobs.

“I’ve seen lawyers, accountants, HR managers, people with military backgrounds – people from all walks of life,” says Abhishek Sharma, the sales and recruitment manager at the venerable culinary college on Laurier Avenue, which opened in 1988 and remains Le Cordon Bleu’s only North American campus.

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

Requests flooding in

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

“It’s an employees’ market out there,” 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, the restaurant industry’s hiring binge couldn’t have come at a better time.

Veterans Affairs Canada recently tweaked its bursary program for former military members looking to train for second careers so that it now covers courses like Le Cordon Bleu’s. Given the cost of the school’s 12-week basic cuisine certificate – $11,700 – Sackett jumped at the chance to have the government pick up the tab for him to pursue his lifelong passion.

"It’s quite reassuring knowing that I probably shouldn’t have to search too hard in order to find a position."

“I’ve always had a love for cooking,” Sackett says. “I guess I’d describe myself as a passionate home cook. 

“It’s just sort of a lucky break that now and hopefully still by the time I graduate, there’s lots and lots of opportunities. It’s quite reassuring knowing that I probably shouldn’t have to search too hard in order to find a position.”

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

During his downtime, Bruce would pore over the Globe and Mail’s Wednesday arts section, trying as many recipes as he could to scratch his culinary itch.

“Cooking to me was like my solace,” explains the 48-year-old, who’s also attending the school under the Veterans Affairs bursary program. “I loved the recipes, but I couldn’t always do it correctly, because I didn’t really recognize what the procedures and techniques were.”

When COVID hit, Bruce found himself 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 in retirement, which is coming up pretty fast,” he says.

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

Classes begin at 8 a.m. sharp 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 attempt to duplicate what they’ve seen, with kitchen drills generally lasting until about 2:30 p.m.

Testing is rigorous, including three exams a week. On top of that, 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 day at the end because you’re concentrating.

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

The basic course can be followed up with additional three-month intermediate and superior cuisine certification, with the tuition fee for the total nine-month package totalling about $32,000.

Bruce says he’s been struck by the eclectic backgrounds of his fellow students, who include a student from China, a lawyer from Turkey and a dental hygienist from the U.S. But he says he’s not surprised, given the surging demand for trained chefs.

Students from the basic course recently took a field trip to renowned Wellington Street restaurant Absinthe, which specializes in European cuisine. The chef told his visitors the kitchen is so understaffed it needs as many as five cooks to get back to running at full capacity.

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