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Renowned chef brings culinary students into his element

Meat was sliced, veggies were chopped and balloons filled with passion fruit purée bobbed in an icy box of liquid nitrogen. Frozen pearls of bright green curry were sifted out of a tub full of the frigid element, which sent hypnotic clouds cascading over the metal counters.

From pan to plate, this was not your typical meal. But with an award-winning chef crowned as “Canada’s most innovative” running the kitchen, typical is far from what you should expect.

Marc Lepine, an Algonquin graduate and owner of the Ottawa restaurant Atelier, visited the college’s kitchen in H119 to bring his creations to a fourth-year culinary management class on Feb. 26. They were to cook for a promotional dinner at the on-campus Restaurant International, an event which sold out within an hour of tickets going on sale.

Lepine is renown for his inventive dishes which earned him the title of “Canada’s Most Innovative Chef” by Canada’s 100 Best in 2018.

“With Marc being a leader in the community with the culinary scene, it was pretty much a no-brainer to bring him in here and give some experience to the students,” said Ric Lee, an instructor of the program. “The students will cherish this event for a long time and learn a lot from it.”

Having worked in restaurants in several countries such as France and Italy, Lepine decided to move to Ottawa in 2001 after being drawn to the college’s sommelier program. After he graduated, he found himself at a crossroads: one path led to teaching prospective sommeliers, and the other, to opening a restaurant.

“I actually taught [at the college] for one semester in the sommelier program, just before opening Atelier. I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to go in. Then I decided I wanted to open a restaurant instead.”

Two years later, Atelier — which is regarded by many critics as one of Canada’s best restaurants — opened its doors in Little Italy to the public on Nov. 12, 2008.

Lepine’s creations are a form of food preparation called molecular gastronomy, which explores the physical and chemical reactions of ingredients. This form employs unorthodox techniques to produce eye-catching results.

“We have a very particular style of food at Atelier, one that I don’t think students get exposed to very much. So I’m hoping they’re excited to see some new things.”

Culinary management student Ashley Desrochers, 36, has always loved to cook and became interested in molecular gastronomy. Thanks to the award-winning chef’s visit, she was able to get a taste for the practice that Lepine is known for, and use liquid nitrogen for the first time.

“That was something I was really excited about doing,” Desrochers said eagerly. “I didn’t think we would get to do it, I didn’t know it would be here today. I have a molecular gastronomy book at home and when I googled how much these things would cost to do them at home, there’s just no chance. So this opportunity is amazing.

“I’m so excited to be a part of it. I wish I could have the chance to actually sit down and experience it how a guest would experience it. But seeing it from back here is pretty exciting too.”

In the kitchen next door, H125, more mist spilled from a foam box as small balloons sloshed in nitrogen. Lepine and a few students gathered to watch Chris Addison, 27, create hollow purée orbs, which are the stars of the aptly named Dino Egg dessert.

“I’ve never seen it used with food before,” said Addison, focusing on the chilly task. “I think it’s cool, it’s really exciting, it’s a good opportunity; it’s not something you’re going to find in a regular restaurant.”

“It’s a tough process,” Lepine noted. “Whenever I have new staff come in it takes them a good 10 [minutes] or so to get the hang of it and he seems to have caught on quite well.” Addison described being chosen to make Lepine’s showpiece as “very humbling.” Students crowded in awe and were able to take part later in the preparation.

The Dino Egg — which was served atop deconstructed cheesecake and orchid petals — was not the only dish being served to diners. Patrons were presented with an assorted six-course meal of some of Chef Lepine’s signatures, including soft-shelled crab with caramel popcorn and the Carrot Hoop: a vibrant orange circle which encompassed flavourful ingredients. Wine was available for pairing as well, courtesy of students in the sommelier program.

After the last plate was sent to the dining room, applause broke out in the kitchens. Servers from the hospitality management program praised all of the chefs, telling them they did an “awesome job” and that this “was an amazing service.”

“Tonight was good,” said Chris Addison, wiping down the kitchen counters. “I was very lucky to be in this class, and to have had this experience.”

Lepine himself was also very pleased with the service.

“It was a fantastic evening; the students and everyone pulled off the menu exactly as I had hoped and the guests were so happy,” he exclaimed. “I had a few people tell me it was the best meal they’ve ever had in their life, so that was quite a great thing to hear.”

Browse through the gallery below to get a glimpse of the chefs in action.

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