Bartending profs toast return to in-class program after COVID silenced industry

If you have ever passed by Antonios Vitaliotis in the hallways of the H-building, you’ve probably got a friendly pat on the back followed by a cheerful, “Don’t worry, we don’t bite in here.” Vitaliotis is a bartending professor at the college. He seems as cheery as the industry he teaches. The industry that never […]
Photo: Arty Sarkisian
Mixology classes at the college try to recreate the experience of real bars. However, students use coloured water instead of real alcohol when they practice.

If you have ever passed by Antonios Vitaliotis in the hallways of the H-building, you’ve probably got a friendly pat on the back followed by a cheerful, “Don’t worry, we don’t bite in here.”

Vitaliotis is a bartending professor at the college. He seems as cheery as the industry he teaches. The industry that never feels “blue.”

But COVID-19 changed everything for him and the industry.

“I saw a world which I never wish anyone to go into,” Vitaliotis said, remembering the quarantine and the online teaching.

Vitaliotis studied in an all-boys school in Athens. In the early 80s, the school was still strictly following the educational traditions of the past. All boys wore uniforms. They all had shaved heads to prevent lice. And the teachers had sticks. They were the “kings.”

“It was about memorizing rather than learning,” Vitaliotis said. “The information was coming one way, and you’re sending it back the very same way.”

Vitaliotis vowed never to teach like that. He vowed to be as approachable and engaging as he possibly can.

But in 2020 he was forced to teach via Zoom to a bunch of squares with names on the screens. And that reminded him the way he was taught. But now he was in the role of those teachers.

He was still trying to make things entertaining. The college provided some extra cameras and lighting gear, so that he could show rather than tell.

“Now I know how hard it it to produce a TV show,” Vitaliotis said.

He was putting more and more effort into each class. But he still didn’t feel like he was doing his job properly.

“My heart started beating funny,” Vitaliotis said, describing one of his Zoom classes. “I couldn’t breathe. I got a bit dizzy.”

Vitaliotis ended the Zoom call for everyone.

“I just sat there for a second. I didn’t know what it was.”

He connected to the conference once again and told the class that he was having “technical issues.”

When that happened again, Vitaliotis went to the emergency department. “I thought I was dying,” he said. “I thought my heart was going to explode.”

Vitaliotis was prescribed antidepressants.

“I’ve never thought of suicide. I started thinking of suicide.”

Antonios Vitaliotis studied in an all-boys school in Athens. “It was about memorizing rather than learning,” Vitaliotis remembered. “The information was coming one way, and you're sending it back the very same way. That’s how Zoom felt too.”
Antonios Vitaliotis studied in an all-boys school in Athens. “It was about memorizing rather than learning,” Vitaliotis remembered. “The information was coming one way, and you're sending it back the very same way. That’s how Zoom felt too.” Photo credit: Arty Sarkisian

COVID-19 destroyed almost every aspect of normality in our lives. Restaurants and bars were shut down in the earliest stages of the quarantine, since they were considered “pandemic accelerators.” Many of them closed permanently. A large number of employees left the industry.

All college programs had to follow the new regulations and switched to online learning. Bartending was one of the first programs to go back in person. It had to come back. Otherwise, students wouldn’t have had the chance to get their degrees that year.

“It would have defeated the purpose,” said Marie-France Champagne, the bartending program coordinator. “You need to own your skills; you need to practice. If you don’t have a bar in front of you, it’s hard to bartend, right?”

Marie-France Champagne, the bartending program coordinator
Marie-France Champagne, the bartending program coordinator, believes that the program coped well with the pandemic difficulties. "Of course, at first, you needed to adjust your mask a few times. It got a little hot in there, but then it was just business as usual.” Photo credit: Arty Sarkisian

Champagne is a frequent guest on CTV. In 2019, on Valentine’s Day, she and her colleague, chef Harsh Singh, were matching fortified wine with a coffee truffle in the studio of CTV Morning Live.

A year later, Champagne and Singh appeared on CTV once again, now in masks and via Zoom. They were still pairing wine with chocolate for Valentine’s Day. In a world where nothing seemed certain, it’s nice to know that lemon truffle still goes well with Moscato d’Asti.

“We’ve adapted rather quickly,” Champagne said. “Of course, at first, you needed to adjust your mask a few times. It got a little hot in there, but then it was just business as usual.”

But the business was still quite unusual.

Classes had to be split up to follow the social distancing regulations. Restaurant International, where all the hospitality students get to practise their skills, had to follow the constantly changing provincial regulations for restaurants.

However, Champagne believes that the program coped well with the pandemic. She argues that the industry that we have collectively pronounced dead is actually very much alive and prosperous.

“Restaurants and bars are booming,” she said. “People are tired. They want to go to restaurants. Even the higher prices don’t change that.”

This instant “boom” has led to labour shortages. There are not enough waiters and hostesses because many of them lost their jobs and left the industry during COVID-19.

The bartending program had to change.

From now on, bartending and sommelier students are also trained to be waiters, managers and fronts of the house.

They are trained for the new, post-pandemic normality.

Vitaliotis feels okay. It’s the new, post-pandemic okay. An okay that follows the world that almost made him quit everything.

“If it wasn’t for my family and my surroundings,” Vitaliotis said, “if I was younger and and on my own, it would have been a no-brainer.”

Vitaliotis still takes some of his antidepressants, but he is “90 per cent well.”

“I was brought back to reality,” he said. “It’s like day and night. I walk into the classroom, and I am feeling super confident.”

The bartending classes are back to being chaotic and loud.

Can it really be different when students can be barely seen behind all the bottles of alcohol? As it turns out, all of them are just coloured water, but let’s be blind and deaf to this disappointing detail.

Almost every five minutes someone would approach a huge ice maker to scoop up a bucket of ice. Ten minutes later the same person would come again. And again.

This is all very “in person.” Every little detail of this in-personness is vital.

At some point, Ezio Margiotta, one of the bartending professors, paused Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You that was playing on his laptop during a class.

What followed was the definition of deafening silence.

“See? It’s horrible,” Margiotta said.

He laughed as if nothing like that could ever happen. Nothing can silence this noisy industry, right?

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