When they called Larah Peters' name, the about-to-turn 29 year old stood up, unfolding a piece of paper from the pocket of her neat black chef's uniform.
It was her graduation and she had a few words to say.
"I never knew how much I loved food until I learned the joy of mirepoix," deadpanned Peters, as her parents and two-and-a-half-year-old son Wiley watched from the table beside her.
Peters had spent much of the past decade, before having her son, as a day-care worker. She explained after the ceremony that she didn't want to leave her son in care to return to work as a caregiver for other people's children. "I needed something new. And I was getting really sick of the food I was cooking at home. This program came at the perfect time."
On Friday, Feb. 10, Big Sky Golf Club was the venue for the graduation ceremony of the first cohort of culinary arts students to complete a pre-apprenticeship chef training program. Offered through the Stó:Lo¯ Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training (SASET) resource centre in Mount Currie, it was fashioned after the industry's Professional Cook Level 1 certificate, and designed to give First Nations a point of entry into the workplace.
Chris Monkman, the chief instructor and program administrator, had asked each student to stand and introduce themselves, but the dozen graduates already knew each other well.
Although all hailed from the 2,000-member community in Mount Currie, few had arrived on their first day of the intensive training knowing anyone else.
"We were all there on our own," said Peters. "We wouldn't be people who'd hang out with each other, and yet we all live in the same town."
But after working together five days a week for 14 weeks, in a kitchen classroom set up at Big Sky for the program, the rapport and supportiveness between the students and staff was palpable.
"We've become really tight with each other, joking around. We all helped each other out," said Peters.
Veronica Joe, who had enrolled in the course with her sister, Rosanna Jim, and her niece Shania Gabriel, joked that the camaraderie was forced on them, because, "Chef kept forcing us to work in different groups."
Family-style lunches every day that they often contributed to making, a daily bus pick-up organized by the Lil'wat Band, and a carefully cultivated learning environment conspired to create a sense of team amongst the cohort.
Longtime local chef and Aboriginal outreach worker, Paul Charron, had pitched the idea of a culinary skills program several years earlier. Knowing how desperate the region's food and beverage sector is for staff, that Pemberton's Big Sky Golf Club was looking for an offseason use for the facility and that Lil'wat residents needed more accessible vocational training options, he'd approached Melanie Williams, the community services advocate at the Lil'wat Band Office with the idea more than three years earlier. When funding was eventually secured, Williams contacted Charron, to let him know the program was a go — and to ask him to teach it.
The most important thing he tried to impart, beyond the foundational culinary skills, was how to embrace failure. "Things are going to happen in a restaurant," said Charron. "You put in too much seasoning, so what can you do to fix it? Put some salt in. Add some tomatoes. Double part of the recipe. You have to go there immediately. Fix it. Ask for help."
Charron recalled asking one 19-year-old student, who had burned his rice the previous week, to cook rice for the crew's end-of-week meal. "'You don't want me to make the rice,'" he said. "Yes. I want you to make rice. And I'm going to walk you through it. And he nailed it. He did the best rice. And everyone was so excited."
Before the graduation ceremony got underway, Monkman echoed that sentiment. "One thing we really encourage is mistakes. The learning opportunity for something that works out is less than from something that was a mistake."
The essence of a learning environment is that it's a safe place to make mistakes and correct course. That was not always the case for First Nations students — the punitive culture of residential schools meant many students lived in fear of speaking up, of answering incorrectly, of displeasing the teacher, making a mistake, triggering some form of corporal punishment.
"If you're afraid of making mistakes, you're actually going to make mistakes," said Monkman. "But when you're learning, you're looking for the experience of making mistakes, to properly lay the foundation, so in the future you can make the corrections that avoid mistakes." For many who are carrying the dark legacy of residential-school trauma, that's not a lesson that can be learned in just 14 weeks, but it's a start.
"They kept showing up," said Charron. "I was so impressed by their stamina. This is a group of great workers. And the facility at Big Sky was wonderful."
The clubhouse's pro shop was transformed into a huge teaching space with stainless-steel work stations overlooking an awesome view of Mount Currie. "The (general manager) would walk around and say 'hi,' and the students would ask, 'hey, you want some food?'" said Charron, proud to see his students absorb the essence of the hospitality industry so naturally.
"It was nice to have the space utilized," said Big Sky's operations manager Mike MacNeil. "And it smelled unbelievable. Hopefully, they'll be back."
Said Peters of the sense of support and investment she felt from the program: "It was our community that did this for us."
Even the bus driver was rooting for their success. Inez Nelson picked up the students each day from their homes, sometimes running two laps to collect the stragglers.
"I'd be one of the second ones to get picked up all the time," admitted Peters. "I'd call out, 'I just need five more minutes, Inez!' They'd pick us up right in front of our door. They were so amazing. My dad would arrive 10 minutes before on the local transit to come and look after my son for the day."
Jim was already a keen cook before enrolling in the program. A mother of three, Jim had spent the past five years caring for her grandparents — all day, every day. After losing them both recently, she felt a need to do something for herself. "They were my world," she said. "My best friends. I'm lost without them. But I'm trying new things, and I can hear them say, 'go for it, babe, dream big, go out in the world.'"
The graduates wrapped the program with a two-week practicum at various restaurants throughout Pemberton and Whistler, most of which ended on Friday Feb. 24.
Jim was placed at Mile One Eating House.
"When the program's chef-instructor reached out to Mile One for a practicum placement, I knew it was something we needed to support," said Mile One's chef and owner Randy Jones. "Their effort in focusing their training resources on an industry that is in need of fresh talent is a great decision, and focusing training on our area residents is crucial — transient employees are a challenge to most businesses."
As for Jim, she left her placement with a job offer. "Rosanna brought a good, quality attitude and some strong foundational skills to the table," said Jones. "And I know our team enjoyed being able to show and teach our craft."
While this is the first culinary intake offered to the Lil'wat Nation, the culinary arts program has been running for aboriginal applicants for 11 years in Surrey and Abbotsford. Over the past five years that SASET has been in charge of delivering the service, 82 per cent of each cohort has ended up securing employment after the course.
"With the success of the program here so far," said Monkman, "and the support within the community and with the business community, it's something we hope to continue."
He said that the culinary staff and the Employment Resource Centre staff in Lil'wat remain available to help graduates tackle any hurdles they encounter in the workplace.
But Charron, who welcomed the news that the program will run again next year, hopes to see one major hurdle for First Nations staff taken care of between now and then.
"There are so many hospitality and food and beverage jobs out there. We're right next door to Whistler. But the biggest challenge is transportation — buses to and from Whistler. Transportation in this town, if you work in the restaurant industry, is so bad. No one is done in a restaurant until 10, 10:30 at night. Not having a bus come back at 11 o'clock is like, are you kidding?"
Charron said the community has the potential to supply the hospitality industry with some heartfelt workers. They just need the chance to get there.