Sophie Crowder remembers the nervous excitement she felt entering the Toronto Congress Centre, taking in the grandeur of Canada’s largest skilled trade and technology competition.
In Skills Canada – Ontario, skilled trade and technology students aim to impress their educators, family, friends and prospective employers, competing for Gold, Silver, or Bronze medals and the opportunity to compete at the Skills Canada National Competition. From there, competitors may go on to the WorldSkills Competition.
This was Sophie’s first experience at Skills Canada – Ontario, having just completed her first semester of Fleming’s Culinary Management program. Sophie was joined at the competition by faculty mentor Steve Benns and fourth-semester student Kayla Daluz, who was competing for her second time.
“Having this opportunity in my second semester is a privilege,” said Sophie. “I felt as prepared as I could be. I trained five days per week two weeks prior to the competition, working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on everything.”
Each year, Fleming Culinary enters two students in the culinary arts competition at Skills Canada – Ontario. The first-year student is expected to try their best and take in the competition so they feel fully prepared next time, and the second-year student is expected to enter as a strong competitor ready for the challenge.
In the culinary arts category, students complete two modules. For Module 1,
- Mushroom Gougère: Shitake and shimeji mushrooms, bacon, green onions and brie stuffed in parmesan choux pastries
- Cured Trout Appetizer: Quick cured trout on crispy brioche rounds topped with grainy mustard and chive cream cheese and a candied fennel chutney
- Roasted Beet Tart: Slow-roasted beets, red onion marmalade, thyme, goat cheese and pistachios served in a savoury tart
- Shimeji Mushroom Gougère: Pan-seared shimeji mushrooms, bacon, roasted red pepper and brie stuffed between parmesan and gruyere choux pastries topped with a lemon, white wine, chive and chili jelly
- Cured Trout Open-Faced Sandwich: Quick cured trout on crispy challah points topped with chive cream cheese, pickled shallots, and a candied fennel and mango chutney
- Waldorf “Style” Tart: Celery root, royal gala apples, mint, goat cheese and pistachios served in a savoury tart
and for Module 2,
- Lobster Cannelloni: Fresh egg pasta stuffed with lobster, shallots and tarragon, finished with lobster glaze, tomato confit, chive white wine butter sauce and microgreens
- Deconstructed Lemon Meringue Pie: Lemon curd white chocolate mousse, tuile cannoli, Italian meringue and citrus gelée finished with blueberry sauce, a sugar spiral, and assorted fruit
- Lobster Cappelletti: Pasta stuffed with lobster, fennel and shallots, finished with tomato confit, lobster glaze, citrus vinaigrette and microgreens
- Deconstructed Lemon Meringue Pie: Lemon curd, tuile cookie and Italian meringue finished with raspberry sauce, a sugar stick, and assorted fruit
Although Sophie and Kayla were separate competitors, Sophie was pleased her work station was beside her Culinary Management peer. It gave Sophie the opportunity to not only work on her dishes, but observe a seasoned pro.
“She was calmer than I was. She carried herself well and followed her plan step-by-step. The way she carried through her work impacted me and I’ll remember it for next year,” said Sophie.
Kayla said she did feel calmer her second time at the competition.
“I was super nervous my first year and I didn’t know where anything was. It was way easier the second time around, I knew how things were laid out, I knew where the ingredients were, I knew what to expect,” she said. “I felt prepared. We trained a lot; every opportunity I had in between classes I was training. And then straight everything for two weeks leading up to the competition. I got to the point where I could measure by eye.”
It was worth the hard work and effort, as Sophie earned 5th Place and Kayla took home a Bronze Medal.
“Sophie, I am blown away. She is crazy talented just going into the program, and getting 5th on her first time? She will go somewhere,” said Kayla, who added that she placed 7th her first time competing. “And I love Chef Benns. I spend a lot of time with him training and I am so grateful to be training under him. He is super talented.”
For Sophie, the competition was spectacular, and she is excited to compete again next year.
“Ontario Skills was just spectacular, and it didn’t feel real until the closing ceremony. It took a long time to get here and I was so proud!” said Sophie. “I was taking photos of Kayla at the podium all teary eyed like a proud mom. Everything happens for a reason and I’m doing what I get to do and what I’m meant to do. I am so grateful.”
A Culinary Career Path
For both Kayla and Sophie, the path to Culinary Management was not easy.
When Kayla got pregnant in high school, she waited until her son was older to pursue her education. She went to PACE, which offers students the opportunity to earn college credits, and Kayla signed up for a dual credit in Fleming’s Culinary program.
“My chef instructor pulled me aside and recommended I continue this because he said I’m good at it,” said Kayla. “That meant a lot to me. I’m here now and the chefs are all proud of me, so I know I’m doing good here.”
Kayla’s advice to students at PACE is to find a career they love.
“If you love it, it comes,” she said. “When I walk in that kitchen, I feel a wave of happiness. If you love it, it’s there, it’s worth it. Seeing people’s reactions to my food, saying ‘I couldn’t do this! It’s crazy, it’s like art!’—that makes it worth it.”
She admits that training for the culinary industry and for competitions can be “hard, tiring and frustrating” with a four-year-old, but is grateful for her support system.
“My support system is great, especially my mom. She wants me in ‘Top Chef,’ she thinks I can go far,” said Kayla. “And my son is proud of it now. I showed him my medal to explain all that I’ve worked for, and he was excited and he’s proud.”
For Sophie, a culinary career didn’t seem possible for her due to health concerns.
When Sophie was 15, she slipped on wrapping paper and fell. Although she felt sore, Sophie wasn’t concerned until days later when her thigh was severely swollen. She visited her family doctor, who wrote Sophie a note for the hospital saying he suspected she had a blood clot.
Unfortunately, Sophie had to wait nine hours at the hospital as the clots spread. Once she was able to see a doctor, she had some blood tests done, followed by an ultrasound. When Sophie was wheeled out of the ultrasound, that’s when she realized something was wrong.
The accident had crushed Sophie’s collateral veins. The doctor injected Sophie with blood thinners and sent her to Sick Kids Hospital, who told Sophie if she had sat for another hour in the hospital her leg would’ve been amputated. She had ongoing healthcare treatments, including blood thinners, and was told culinary required too much standing for her to pursue.
Instead of culinary school, Sophie moved to Peterborough from Mississauga to study anthropological archaeology at Trent University. While she enjoyed finding connections between archeology and her passion (such as food vessel artifacts from Pompeii) and loved living in the city of Peterborough, Sophie still dreamed of a culinary career.
When her health improved and her doctor gave Sophie the all clear to study Culinary Management, she dropped out of archaeology and signed up for Culinary Management at Fleming College.
“I have a riser on my cutting board, I wear a back brace sometimes while cooking, and I wear compression socks,” said Sophie. “But this is the dream. I am so grateful I get to do it.”
Sophie, who began Culinary Management this January, will start training for the next Skills Canada – Ontario competition in September. She hopes to create a fine-tuned action plan, get her timing down, and come in feeling more prepared.
“It’s such a cool experience,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Kayla, who graduates from Fleming College this June, has been hired at Rolling Grape Vineyard as the Executive Chef. She will create a food program from scratch, which includes building a wood-burning oven for pizzas and growing fresh herbs.
“A huge bonus for me is that I can stay included at Fleming College because of the Culinary program’s collaboration with Rolling Grape,” said Kayla. “I’ve asked the chefs here what it takes to teach. They have given me so much, so I’d like to give back.”