DUNCAN, BC | Marie Seitcher is taking her passion for cooking to the next level with the help of a unique fine dining teaching kitchen run through Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Culinary Arts program.
The 34-year-old from Songhese First Nation has spent the past six months learning at The Farm Table dining room, VIU’s teaching kitchen and fine dining restaurant at Providence Farm, a non-profit, therapeutic community in the Cowichan Valley. Since 2013, the University has run the farm-to-table experience out of the farmhouse on-site, giving students the chance to experience all aspects of running a restaurant, from working in the kitchen to greeting, seating and serving customers. Another unique aspect of the program is that students work in the gardens and learn about growing and harvesting the food they use in the dishes.
“It gives us a good, well-rounded experience in how to run and operate a restaurant,” says Seitcher, who drives up from Victoria to participate in the four-day-a-week program. “We learn firsthand how to be a hostess, server, dishwasher, prep cook, chef and baker. It’s unique for a post-secondary program, which is why I chose to come here. My end goal is to run my own restaurant, so this is great experience. And growing your own food is a lot easier than I thought – I’ve started my own garden at home now.”
Starting this fall, VIU is adding a second cohort of 14 students, allowing the restaurant to stay open year-round. It will mean double the amount of students can get their Professional Cook Level 1 training in the Cowichan Valley. Each class will be seven months, allowing for some overlap.
“This additional PC1 program will make all the difference in the restaurant operation,” says Keith Chicquen, Instructional Director for VIU Cowichan. “We can now have it open year-round, creating consistency and dependability. Everyone, including our partners at Providence Farm, is excited about the additional programming.”
Jason Lloyd, a VIU Culinary Arts instructor who runs the Farm to Table program, says there’s a growing market for local food dining options across the Island and many of their patrons come to support not only the students, but also the local-first concept.
“The Cowichan Valley is becoming a foodie destination and I think the popularity of the farm-to-table restaurant model is only going to continue to grow,” he says. “The produce and proteins we use are very, very local – well within 100 miles. Much of it is from Providence Farm, when they have enough. This program exposes students to the local way of doing things right from the beginning, which I hope will influence their purchasing decisions later when they are chefs.”
Lloyd says there are still plenty of local foods students can cook with all winter.
“I think the students appreciate the product we get in – it’s fresh and it’s local, which means all the fruits and veggies have so much flavour,” says Lloyd. “I think they also appreciate they’re cooking things that challenge their skills.”
Seitcher says Lloyd taught her how to run a restaurant efficiently so that even complicated dishes can be put together quickly. She’s also enjoyed working alongside the other students in the program, who are all different ages.
“We all started as strangers, but we’re like family now,” she says.
Chris Holt, Executive Director of Providence Farm, is thrilled with the program expansion.
“The students and staff have become part of our community at the farm and not only do they use a lot of our fresh farm vegetables and meats at The Farm Table restaurant, but the students and staff also volunteer for various farm activities and this directly helps our participants,” he says. “This is a model of cooperation that works!”