Sandwiched by choice

Features Stories

March, 2012

A vast stainless steel counter, stretching long enough to hold countless three-course meals, bears the weight of 600 white plates, all engraved with a delicate blue design. A few of them already hold food. Petite tea sandwiches: cucumber and cream cheese, egg salad on sourdough, salmon pinwheels. Vince Baart places these sandwiches onto each plate. Three sandwiches per plate, 600 plates a day, five days a week. One would think Baart would be absolutely fed up with the sandwich. He’s not. He wants to make the sandwich. 

At least, that’s what he thinks he wants to do. The world has so many choices, especially for Baart, who’s only 19 and has already landed a job at the Fairmont Empress, sometimes plating tea sandwiches and sometimes cooking for the well-known. 

“Rick Mercer will come through the hotel and he’s like, ‘I want a ham-and-cheese sandwich with no crusts,’” says Baart, dead ringer for Harry Potter and Elvis Costello’s offspring. The lenses of his glasses tilt down toward his nose on both sides, giving Baart the appearance of being deep in thought all the time. 

The Training

Before Baart began moonlighting as a sandwich connoisseur, he just wanted a stable career.

“I had a trades teacher in high school who taught an introduction to trades course, and he told us, ‘Regardless of where you end up in life, it’s always handy to have a trade of some kind in your back pocket.’ ”

Baart chose cooking. “For me, it was a logical choice for a career and for a career path. If you’re cooking, it’s totally portable. You can cook anywhere in the world and you’ll always have work.” He understands why outsiders may look down on his choice. “To say you want to have a trade is not quite astronaut or doctor status.” 

Unlike the astronauts and doctors who spend years in school, Baart enrolled at Camosun College in Victoria, B.C., combining a total of 5 000 hours of paid work experience with three intense, six-week courses at the college. He became a chef apprentice, setting a goal to obtain his Red Seal certification. 

The Red Seal certification is an interprovincial standard of excellence for all skilled trades. To date, 52 trades in Canada are included in the program, such as carpentry and bricklaying. In B.C., the Red Seal chef certification is normally obtained after completing all three levels of professional cook courses. 

“Food is something that every single person on the planet has to have. Food is the biggest resource we have at our disposal. What we do is what everybody needs,” stresses Steve Walker-Duncan, Baart’s culinary instructor at Camosun, whose office desk is dwarfed by a towering bookshelf crammed tight with cookbooks. Only a few choice pictures hang on the walls. These days, Walker-Duncan’s culinary memories are forever captured on film for his television show, Flavours of the West Coast. 

He’s a popular instructor. “Steve is a teacher. It seems like that’s what he was born to do. He’s so good at it,” says Baart. It’s not difficult to see why. Walker-Duncan carries the air of a friendly mall Santa — someone who feels familiar, even upon introduction. 

Walker-Duncan, praising Baart’s ability, returns the kudos. “Baart is very much a go-getter. He’s got some very good skills.” 

According to Dennis Green, senior manager at Go2, a non-profit B.C. tourism association that specializes in human resources, Baart’s instincts are spot-on. Green says, “Even with the current economy, we are seeing a demand for cooks, and our outlook data in the recently completed tourism labour market strategy shows a need for 9 000 additional cooks and chefs in B.C. by 2020, one of only two trades where the number of people being trained is less than the anticipated new job demand.” According to Green, since 2006, total cook certifications have gone up from 116 in 2006-2007 to 783 in 2010-2011.

Having already completed two out of the three professional cooking levels at Camosun, Baart is almost finished his 3 000 hour apprenticeship placement at the Fairmont. After another six-week intensive course, he should be ready to take the Red Seal assessment. He doesn’t feel anywhere near ready, but he doesn’t blame the college. 

The Job

As part of the apprenticeship model, the employer should be responsible for the apprentice’s education. It is not always the case, says Walker-Duncan. “It’s a common issue for employers to not be as forward with their end of the training. It’s not without its challenges. The apprenticeship system is work-based training. [Camosun] delivers the technical aspect.”

While Baart insists he entered the culinary industry for career stability, he still longs to express creativity at work. “The college really encourages you to learn. They encourage you to express creativity and new ideas. Whereas in the kitchen, if you don’t get something, someone else will do it. There is no creativity.”

Baart is becoming increasingly frustrated with his lack of educational training at work. He says the Fairmont Empress expects him to practice his skills on his own time, often after already working an eight-hour shift. Management tells him not to think of it as working for free, but learning for free. “I really disagree with that,” he says. “This is industry-wide.”

Baart’s instructor notices this trend as well. “The apprentices are not given the full learner classification that they really deserve. They’re expected to be an employee, which is not fair on them,” says Walker-Duncan. And there is a shock factor. “When they leave [Camosun] and go into the workplace, it is a very steep learning curve. They have to get a fire lit under them and move.”

The problem is simple enough. Students are often seen as employees first, apprentices second. Baart understands why — running a successful kitchen is difficult — but he still questions his future with the Fairmont corporation.

A representative from the Fairmont Empress told the Martlet via email, “At Fairmont we take apprenticeships very seriously. These are the people who are going to represent our field of expertise in the future. We encourage open learning and mentorship with the chefs in the culinary areas. The apprentices are going to learn and experience the full field that the culinary world has to offer within the hotel environment.” 

Baart says the problem may be rooted in kitchen hierarchy. 

“As a cook, you’ll always be an employee,” says Baart. “You’ll always have to answer to someone. When I’m 35, 45, 55, do I still want to be answering to someone? Maybe this is ego, but I’d like to think that maybe there’s something more to life than being the best doer?”

It’s a valid question, given that ego drives kitchen hierarchy. “There is only one chef in any kitchen. The chef is the chief, the boss,” says Walker-Duncan. 

Baart agrees. “If the chef tells you to do something, you do it. Doesn’t matter if it’s illegal, you do it. The chef is God.” The God complex attracts many to this tough profession, but Baart is not swayed by the power. “You’re always an employee. The chef, at 6:30 every morning, you see him, he has to punch into the punch clock, just like the rest of us schmucks. The only difference is he gets paid more and sits in an office.” 

Finding a job where he can fully express his ideas weighs the most on Baart’s mind. He earns a strong salary with benefits at the Fairmont, but often feels forgotten. His co-workers have urged him to leave. 

In addition to the rigid corporate structure and the less-than-stellar educational training at his job, the day-to-day toll wears on Baart. At any given moment, 600 more tea plates will need plating. “You are expected to be available from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., 365 days a year. I can’t go to church. I can’t join a stamp club. I can’t do anything outside of work,” he says. 

Other Options

Bart has considered being a part of the $60-billion-a-year Canadian food service business through owning his own food truck. 

“In Victoria, I see that there’s a real lack of street food,” says Baart. “I’ve toyed with the idea of opening a food truck.” 

He jokes that even a sandwich food truck would make him happy, as long as he could be his own boss. “A famous sandwich-maker,” says Baart, slowly rolling “famous” off his tongue. He insists celebrity status doesn’t faze him. Much like Walker-Duncan, Baart’s entrepreneurial drive may one day lead him in that very direction. In the culinary realm, one is either famous or virtually unknown.  

Still, his Camosun instructor cautions Baart against moving too quickly intho a business venture. “Young people, they want everything now. The time and energy that is required to develop and hone your skills is significant. Would I go into the restaurant game again? I would think very, very carefully because it is a lot of work with small return,” says Walker-Duncan.

By comparison, job security as an employee in someone else’s restaurant can be quite good for certified cooks and bakers. According to the 2007 National Apprenticeship Survey, 88 per cent of apprentices in Canada who completed their program were employed and 73 per cent had a permanent job. 

October, 2012

Baart now sees the Red Seal as an empty certification. Although he has completed his level two certification, he does not plan to attain the third and final level with the Red Seal that goes along with it. He currently works at the Fairmont Empress only as a casual on-call employee. He has also given up on the food truck, though he is still interested in opening his own, non-food-related business.

“It’s just such a high-risk business,” says Baart. “The margins are so small.” 

He also points out that having a great product doesn’t guarantee success in the restaurant world. 

“You don’t become the biggest hamburger joint in the world by having the best burger. It’s not about the food.” 

The important fact to remember: Baart is only 20 and already questions what his future will hold. It may not contain the ingredients needed to run a successful food truck, or the flavours for a head chef position. The one thing he still knows for certain? His favourite sandwich. Pulled pork. 

Check out page 15 to read Kaitlyn Rosenburg’s regular restaurant review column, “Eats, Chews and Leaves.” This week, she profiles Bin 4 Burger Lounge.