St-Pius Culinary Institute – where dreams come true and appetites are satisfied
A couple weeks ago, I decided to attend a restaurant where the food and presentation was prepared by student cooks. St-Pius Culinary Institute located on Papineau Street in Montreal, is the home to aspiring chefs learning the nooks and crannies of the cooking world. When I first walked in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, how can a cooking school impress me? Let me tell you, I was wrong. For just $25.00 taxes included, guests enjoy a full course meal accompanied with appetizers, a main course and a dessert. Definitely a bang of flavour for your buck!
When I first sat down, I noticed that the eating area which seats 60 people every Thursday and Friday evening was full. To me, that was already a good sign. As the waiter took our orders and the food began appearing on our table, my taste buds were in for a treat. This was no student-run show. It is, but the food was 5 star quality. I guess that’s why they’re called the 5 Star Chefs. From the canapés to the panko crusted crab cakes, and then my main meal which was the exotic seafood risotto with jumbo shrimp and scallops, every texture, flavour and sauce was on point. I was blown away by the talent these student chefs had and how professional the service was.
I think this institute deserves praise for the hard work they do in shaping our future cooks who may be catering my wedding one day, who knows. I had the opportunity to sit down with the teacher and chef of the dining room, Derek Curzi who’s a former student of the institute. It’s Curzi’s third year teaching at St-Pius and students are lucky to be learning the trade from such an experienced chef who continued his education in Belgium and worked in the industry for 24 years.
“This is an excellent program where we teach students Mediterranean cuisine like French and Italian to get them ready to be out in the real word,” Curzi says.
The program consists of nine months and a half of theory classes and then three months of service where the students obtain hands on experience in cooking while they finish their program serving the dining room.
The full course menu changes every week and all produce are fresh and local. Most food is prepared to order so students can learn the pressures of serving real clients in real time. “I want them to know that this is what it is. They need to be organized and pushing them is what helps make them learn,” he says.
Chef Curzi loves what he does and it shows in the way he inspires his students. Last year, he brought three students to Taste Canada in Toronto, a food competition that involves 12 schools across Canada. These students are given recipes from the top 12 cook books and have to present it to judges. Last year, his team won gold.
After discussing the way St-Pius Culinary Institute teaching students the wonders of cooking, I asked an aspiring chef and student at the school Thomas Di Donato a few questions concerning his journey. At 26-years-old, Di Donato is almost done his program at St-Pius and is lining up internships for the rest of the year.
Q: What inspired you to become a cook?
A: I guess the inspiration came from my home life. I mean, we were always in the kitchen. Everything in my family either revolved around food or had something to do with it. The kitchen was just where everything began and ended, and still is for me. When I was a kid, I remember the smells coming from the simmer pots, the chopping on cutting boards, and all the talking and laughing. It’s chaotic, and yet, welcoming. I can remember my parents and grandparents getting together with my cousins to make sausages, wine, cheese and preserving all the Fall vegetables for the winter. I always just wanted to be part of it.
Q: How has your experience been at the Pius culinary institute?
A: Pius has been an all-around great experience. You hear a lot of people complain about the type of cuisine and techniques that are taught, and how some are out-dated and not done in the industry anymore. I find that the base that we learn at the beginning is something that needs to be taught. From out mother sauces, to butchering meat, to turning vegetables and making chaud-froid, these techniques are classical and need to be respected. That said, our service modules teach us how to bring all our techniques together and push the boundaries on a lot of dishes, while still respecting the tradition of the base technique. I find all the teachers great, and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much, and wanted to learn, as much as I have at Pius.
Q: How have they prepared you for the real world of cooking?
A: I can’t believe I’m actually saying this… And I know he’ll get a kick out of it… But one teacher, Chef Sistino told us something on our first day of service that stuck with us. The most important thing we can learn is to work with a sense of urgency. It’s sounds like something so logical, but man, is it true. During service, there’s a fine line between running smooth and chaos, and we constantly walk that line. What did I learn? How to adapt. How to improvise. How to design plates and make them presentable. All this, with a sense of urgency. The second thing and equally as important, was to learn how to work and communicate together. It started out pretty rough, there were quite a few hiccups along the way, but luckily our class has fantastic chemistry, and we all have each other’s backs. We’ve become a family, to say the very least, and whenever you need help; someone is always there for you.
Q: How has it been working under pressure and serving crowds of 50-60 people twice a week?
A: The first few times were interesting, to put it mildly, but as time progressed, we found our groove. Now it just feels like 60 people isn’t enough. We’ve had tough weeks where we had 2 days to prepare for service, plus we had fundraisers and career fairs to get ready for at the same time. Somehow, we always manage to make it. I find that the service aspect is just amazing; it’s a great introduction to the adrenaline rush of a full night’s service.
The Culinary institute’s dining room is open to the public Thursday and Friday evenings. Reservations are needed since space is limited. For more information visit their website: http://www.piuscentre.com/
By Alyssa De Rosa –mtltimes.ca