Matt McCamon was understandably reluctant to leave high school in his grad year. He feared losing touch with all his friends and missing out on what so many claim is supposed to be the best year of your life. But McCamon also wanted to get a jumpstart on his career as a chef, and decided to enter Vancouver Island University's (VIU) Culinary Arts program as a dual-credit student, which allows students to simultaneously work on their high-school diploma and post-secondary certification.
It's a decision McCamon knows he won't soon regret.
"It was kind of hard at the beginning, but it's turned out really awesome. It was definitely the right choice," the 18-year-old said.
VIU's culinary program has been helping staff Whistler's kitchens for years. Most recently, three VIU students began working behind the line at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler as part of their co-op placement. All three chefs, who include McCamon, 19-year-old Perry Assu and Jacinto Bevilacqua, have earned the chance to stay on at the luxury hotel as apprentices.
"That co-op piece often can turn into a continuing on of their apprenticeship, and that's what's happened with these kids, which is so fantastic," said VIU's Debbie Shore, program chair. "They came in in the last year of high school as dual-credit students with that high-school mentality of, 'ah, it's just school,' and they left as total professionals."
VIU's culinary program offers hands-on, practical instruction that readies young chefs for the pressures of the kitchen.
"We are a very busy brigade here, but the VIU program prepared me well for the reality of hotel cooking — the long hours and the heavy workload," Assu said in a release. "All of my instructors gave me valuable advice that came into play when I got this job."
McCamon, who's been at the hotel for seven months, credits his time at the Fairmont for giving him the kind of real-world experience he never thought he'd get at such a young age. After he's completed his three-year apprenticeship, McCamon plans to follow his girlfriend to a Fairmont location in Sydney, Australia, to take the next step in his culinary career.
"I'm probably going to stay at the Fairmont for the rest of my life," he said. "It's such a good company to be in, with the benefits and all that. They really take care of everyone."
With a dearth of young people entering the culinary industry, Shore said it's essential that employers think of new ways to engage with emerging chefs.
"I think what some employers are starting to see is, if they can't pay (their staff) more, maybe they can give them a little more free time, a four-day week versus a five-day week," she said. "It's a pretty competitive market and it's tough because the margins are so small.
"The Millennials, a lot of people think, 'oh, they're so lazy,' but every teen in the course of history has been thought of as lazy. What we're finding is you can't call them lazy, but you have to give them really clear, respectful expectations... Then, all of a sudden, they're hooked. Having employers that can embrace that and give daily feedback, it's important, especially with young people. They're going to look for other things (outside of work) to make their lives better. They're gonna teach us baby boomers not to be such workaholics."
The next intakes for VIU's Culinary Arts programs are Jan. 24 and Feb. 14. Students may be eligible for a variety of tax credits and government grants to help with costs, like the BC Access Grant, which provides students with funding for tools, relocation costs and student loans.
To learn more, visit viu.ca/culinary.