For over 40 years, the BC Chefs Association has encouraged talent, professionalism and pride in the pursuit of culinary excellence
by Laurie Jones
The year was 1958, and Xavier Hetzman was the Executive Chef at the Hotel Georgia in Vancouver. Being aware of Canada’s national chefs association, he envisioned something similar on the West Coast.
“Let me tell you how it all started,” says Hetzman. “I met a chef named Wally Shaw and said to him, ‘I’d like to start a chef’s association here.’ Wally thought it was a good idea, but said he didn’t know how to do it. So I told him to come over to my office and we’d start one.”
Shortly thereafter, the BC Chefs Association was a reality. The first meeting, held in Port Coquitlam, had only 8 men in attendance. As most of the founding members were from Europe, where such associations were well established, the direction of the new organization was mirrored after the groups in their home countries. Victoria officials granted a non-profit association charter to the BCCA that same year.
Hetzman is the last surviving founder of the BCCA. He retired in 1987 at the age of 65, after working at the Georgia for 22 years and Vancouver’s Bayshore Hotel for a further 22 years.
But the vision he had some forty years ago lives on. The association now boasts a membership of approximately 300 men and women, ranging in age from 16 to 85, and includes Active, Junior, Associate, and Life Members. It is one of the oldest, volunteer-run professional associations for chefs and cooks in Canada.
Julius Pokomandy, Past President of the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks and Life Member of the BCCA, has seen many changes over the years in the food service industry, including the rise to current levels of professional recognition. “In the 1950s, cooks were not part of a designated trade. It was basically a domestic activity. If someone was looking for a job in the newspaper, we came under the heading of ‘Domestic Help’, even though we were working at places like the Hotel Vancouver, and feeding 200,000 people a year,” says Pokomandy. Thankfully, all that has changed.
Today the position is highly coveted, and many chefs and cooks have become well renowned. Years of training, apprenticing, experience and participating in competitions have made the difference. Food preparation at the professional level—presentation, understanding the matching of different flavours, aromas, colours and textures—is nothing less than a form of art.
The BCCA is proud to have several such artists in their midst. Chefs such as Michael Noble, Gerhard Pichler, Bruno Marti, and Wolfgang Leske, to name a few, all have a common thread—an almost obsessive dedication to excellence. In addition to their expertise in the industry, these chefs have been known to devote weeks, sometimes 10 hours a day, preparing for competitions. One such event is the Culinary Olympics, where Chef Marti acted as team coach for the group when they travelled to Edfurt, Germany in October. Participation in such prestigious competitions provides a residual influence on other members of the BCCA, showing what the highest levels of skill and effort can achieve.
Another key to continued success in the profession is education. Pokomandy, who instructed in the Delta School District for 37 years, is the founding president and now Honorary Member of the BC Chef Instructors Association. The organization began in 1978, and its membership includes several chef instructors from BC high schools.
Teachers can often be a big influence on future careers of their students, and the culinary arts vocation is no exception. “A substantial percentage of active BCCA members have been involved with the BCCIA for many years. These teachers are our front-line professionals. They ensure that we have a good supply of committed young people who are excited about becoming chefs and cooks,” says Pokomandy.
Once they are on the road to a career in food preparation, students and apprentices are encouraged to join the BCCA as Junior Members. “The Junior Chapter is a very important component of our association,” says Klaus Fix, Chairman of the Board. “It began in 1994 to allow apprentices to meet with experienced members, for both educational purposes and career development. We also offer several $500 scholarships to Junior Members at the apprentice level.”
As with any career, networking is very valuable in the food service industry. And there is ample opportunity within the BCCA for apprentices to learn at the hands of the masters. “When I started cooking in the ‘70s, it was really hard to learn the tricks of the trade, because everybody was guarding their secrets,” says Alan Funnell, 2nd Vice President and Membership Chair. “But it’s very different now. Most chefs are quite willing to pass along their knowledge.”
Active Members of the BCCA often play an important role in taking apprentices under their wing, with the hope that the Junior Members will someday become Executive Chefs. One person that has been very successful with his mentoring efforts is Chef Michael Noble, of the Metropolitan Hotel. “One of our kitchen apprentices, Kevin Cherkas, will be participating in the Bocuse d’Or in Leon, France,” says Noble, who represented Canada at the competition twice, winning sixth place in 1995. At that time, his was the highest placement ever achieved by a Canadian. This year, he will be returning to coach Cherkas. “I believe there is an onus on all of us to put something back into these programs,” says Noble. Also accompanying Cherkas is Chef Christopher Mills, who was awarded the 1997 Apprentice of the Year honour while working under the guidance of Chef Noble.
BCCA members are among the best chefs and cooks in the region, which encompasses the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. While not everyone can spare the time to attend monthly meetings, there are other opportunities to mingle with fellow culinary professionals, such as the annual President’s Ball, and any one of the many local competitions held annually. For over twenty years, the BCCA has conducted competitions among both apprentices and members. These events not only help chefs hone their skills, they serve to create an awareness of the association and the profession.
There is also another component to some of the competitions organized by the BCCA. “Fundraising—for scholarships, professional development, and charitable organizations—is a strong focus for us,” says President Marcus von Albrecht. “This year we donated $5,400 to Culinary Team BC, and $5,400 to the Alzheimer’s Society of BC.” The BCCA offers several different scholarships, including those for students who are going from high school to culinary programs that will lead to apprenticeships, and for assistance to chefs who are taking their Certified Chef de Cuisine exam. “Depending on the funding available, we offer 20-40 scholarships each year,” says von Albrecht.
Corporate partnerships play a large role in the BCCA’s fundraising efforts. In September of this year, the BC Produce Marketing Association organized the Healthy Chef Competition Gourmet Dinner in tandem with the BCCA. “The dinner was a huge success thanks to the efforts of the BC Chefs Association, and we were able to donate $2500 toward expenses for the chefs attending the Culinary Olympics, and $500 toward a scholarship,” says Margi Cherko, who spearheaded the event. Funds raised from a silent auction that evening also benefited both the BC Cancer Society and the BC Heart and Stroke Foundation. Cherko is confident that next year’s dinner will be even more successful.
Sponsorship for most BCCA events comes primarily from the Associate Members. These include food service professionals such as owners, managers, and sales representatives of food purveyors and manufacturers. “These people are extremely important to the activities of the association. Everything from the BCCA magazine, to food donations and monetary sponsorships for competitions come from Associate Members. Their involvement has been pivotal in our success over the last 42 years,” says Pokomandy.
That success is also due to the men and women in the BCCA. And women are more than welcome to become a member of the association. “It is definitely not just an ‘old boys’ club,” says Funnell. “There are currently eight female Active Members and 15-20 Junior Members. It’s great to see more women joining.”
Anne Milne, developer of the Urban Fare restaurant concept for the Overwaitea Food Group, is also encouraged that women are participating in the BCCA. “I think the fact that the Canadian Federation of Chefs and Cooks is headed by Cornelia Volino will undoubtedly influence women to join the local chefs associations, which have been primarily attended by men. Having different styles and viewpoints introduced into traditional organizations can often bring a refreshing new outlook,” says Milne.
Chefs, cooks, teachers, consultants, caterers, wineries, micro-breweries, and suppliers are all part of the BCCA. This wide cross-section of the hospitality industry definitely adds to the flavour of the organization, and each has a unique blend of expertise and experiences to share with other members.
One such story comes from Funnell, who is, by day, the In-house Culinary Trainer with Via Rail Canada. “Last year I did a training session for some of our new employees aboard the train to Churchill, Manitoba. They received first-hand knowledge about the challenges of slicing, dicing and cooking while going 40 miles/hour along the old tracks, which are pretty rough in that area. You really have to be on your toes in this type of working condition,” says Funnell.
The BCCA will continue its efforts to cultivate excellence in the culinary community, keeping the decades old vision first created by Xavier Hetzman alive for many years to come.
BC Chefs Association meetings are held every third Tuesday of the month, at various hotels and food service establishments. For more information, call the Branch Office at (604) 594-4733.