Walk through the front doors at Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute (SFDCI), turn right, head to the double set of doors to the cafetorium, go through them and cross to the kitchen. Jeff Burns is there, Chef Jeff, that is. He’s the one in the red Chef’s coat, working with students (many who tower over him), teaching, talking them through deep frying, powdering, cutting, filling, using phyllo pastry, and other cooking techniques.
The fourth Thursday of February was the re-opening of the Restless Redhawk Café for this term. Menu items included Jambalaya, Po’ Boy Sandwiches with Cajun remoulade, and Beignets with raspberry reduction for dessert. Burns stoked the energy of the students, gave instructions, kidded them, and worked steadily alongside the 12 to 15 there to get food out to café customers.
Residents of Smiths Falls have probably noticed Chef Jeff at other events, too. He does his best to stay in the background and push his students to the fore, so if someone needs a catered event, he answers the call.
He’s taken his students on gigs to the Heritage House Museum, the Lions’ Club, Open Doors, the Legion, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and last year’s Powwow on Duck and Turtle Islands in June. That was a big one for him, he’d never worked with bison before. If there’s a ‘best’ between beef or bison, Burns throws his hands in the air and says without a doubt it’s bison.
Burns, 54, has been in the food business all his life. He remembers clearly when it started for him two days after turning 13. His brother called from the New York Café in Brockville. He needed help. In return, Burns got free Chinese food and chocolate milk.
After high school he enrolled in a managerial accounting course, didn’t like it much, headed to Houlihan’s in downtown Ottawa and then the NavCan Training Centre in Cornwall where he took on a lead cook position. “At that time, it was a rockin’ place,” he recalls, grinning. It was here the idea of teaching surfaced.
“When I was working with Chef John from Cornwall Collegiate [at NavCan], we had a few of his students, as co-op students. All of them became paid employees. These kids were from ” less than ideal” circumstances. They all said I should become a teacher because I got them to listen and they didn’t listen to (expletive) anyone, other than Chef John.”
Burns learned a lot there, got his Red Seal certification, went to St. Lawrence College to learn to become an educational assistant, was accepted at Queen’s University where he pursued technical education and from there, after applying for three jobs (he was accepted at all three), he got the call to come back “to the neighbourhood where I grew up.” He came to Smiths Falls.
The course is formally called Hospitality and Tourism. It starts in grade 10 and goes to grade 12, with an emphasis on food service. The course calendar describes it like this: “Students study culinary techniques of food handling and preparation, health and safety standards, the use of tools and equipment, the origins of foods, and event planning…“
Burns puts it plainly: “I teach them how to cook.”
Brittany Rhoden, 17, a grade 12 student, says the course has given her skills, has taught her to cook “meals other than peanut butter and jam sandwiches.” Alina Turnbull, 15, a grade 10 student, likes the course, too. “It involves eating,” she grins. “We learn to make really good food.”
Jared Ruttan, 18, in grade 12, has taken the course every year since grade 10. It’s the best he’s ever taken, he says.
Not only does the hospitality course add an element of hands-on to a student’s schedule, it often makes them “leave their problems at the door. There’s so much going on in here, they forget everything else,” Burns says. And what they’re learning is pertinent not only to the wider world of tourism and hospitality, but in very real, immediate terms it equips them to start life. “These basic skills let kids move out on their own. They make life relevant,” he says.
The Café rolls the whole education experience into a viable in-your-face package. It uses six of the school’s courses – Fine Arts, Media Arts, Music, Technology, Business and Hospitality – and demonstrates in one large space how they all work together. Fine Arts students paint backdrops, Media Arts produces posters, Music students perform, Technology students make café tables, Business students do the planning (advertising, marketing) and Hospitality kids develop the menu on a particular theme.
And Chef Jeff gets to watch it all unroll through the door of his small office at the front of the kitchen. From a man who likes to talk, he says very succinctly and wholeheartedly, “I’m living the dream. I truly am.”
For information about the the high school or the Hospitality and Tourism course at SFDCI, call 613-283-0288 or go to the website at smithsfalls.ucdsb.on.ca.
This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of Hometown News. For more articles from our March 2018 issue, pick up a print copy at a local retailer (find a list of locations here) or read our digital version.