Expanding horizons through culinary arts!

Expanding horizons through culinary arts!

It’s no secret that students learn about different countries and cultures in school. However, it may surprise you that one of the classes where this is taking place is in the teaching kitchen at Salmon Arm Secondary (Sullivan Campus)!

First meet teacher and Chef, Nimmi Erasmus. “For me, cooking is a passion. It has been my life since I was eight years old. Everything about food fascinates me.  I love travelling and meeting people from different cultures and bringing home a part of them and adapting it into my lifestyle. Everywhere you go you learn and the more people you meet, the more your thinking broadens. Culinary Arts has the ability to change the way we view the world. Global cuisine has exposed a variety of food trends and has changed our diet, and how we live,” she explains. 

Erasmus and student making pasta at Salmon Arm Secondary’s (Sullivan) teaching kitchen

“My teaching kitchen is where students get to view the world through their own lens as artists. They get to paint a picture and taste foods from around the world. In order for this to successfully happen, I have to set standards, and like every job, these kids have to meet the expectations. What this does is it equips our kids to challenge themselves, to step out of their comfort zone, and be unique. I always tell them, leave your everyday stress outside this kitchen and come dive into a different world where you get to see and taste beautiful global cuisines”.

Erasmus is a 2003 graduate of Salmon Arm Secondary and is now teaching in the kitchen that inspired her passion for Culinary Arts and set her on her career path. “Chef Alex Varga was my mentor. It is such a privilege to be able to come back here and educate the next generation.”

She attended Shuswap Middle School from 2000- 2001 and then attended SASS, graduating in 2003. She then went on to the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary to take Chef’s Training and earned her Red Seal by the time she was 19.

After working for some prestigious hotel chains such as Fairmont, Delta and Marriott, she completed her apprenticeship at the renowned Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. “Back in the day we had to work really long hours with minimum pay, it was tough, and being a girl trying to establish a name was even harder. I worked my way up, becoming an Executive Sous Chef by the time I was 23 years old and then helped open a few restaurants in Calgary.”

Chef Nimmi’s  professional and family obligations then took her to the United Kingdom where she continued her work as a Chef and helped open a restaurant while being a mum.

When she came back to Canada life changed. Teaching was not the profession she thought she would take on. Looking back, being an educator and teaching a subject you are passionate about is simply the best career choice.

“I had promised myself I would never teach, let alone teach high school. It’s funny where life takes you. I returned back to Canada with my very young daughter and realized the industry would be a tough place to return to while taking care of her as well. Long story short, I applied for a maternity fill teaching position at Pacific Academy, Surrey, and ended up teaching there for 3.5 years. I fell in love with it and the kids pushed me to further educate myself.”

She still kept in touch with Chef Alex. He told her he was retiring from SAS-Sullivan and suggested she consider coming back. “My initial response was no. Then I happened to meet Principal Rob Cadden and talked to him about the program. Now here I am.”

“It’s truly been a full circle and my heart’s desire is to stay here and build an outstanding program that will not only equip our kids but also one that stands out as different in the province. We have already earned a name for ourselves within a short time in BC”.

“I am so blessed to be able to step into my mentors’ shoes and come back and serve a community that helped me stand up. This is how I choose to give back and I will do everything I can to continue educating with finesse, respect and gratitude to my school community. “

Erasmus has short and long term goals for the program and is already working at making it a unique, experience-stretching program that helps students who are planning on furthering their education in food services but also helps others learn how to set goals and work to meet them, as well as to begin to set life goals.

“I want to change how people view culinary education. Culinary Arts is unique. It is taking cooking and elevating it to be something you like. I love to see kids change their thinking when they cook. One gets to see the artist in themselves. Something that maybe they keep away from society.”

“I get the privilege of mentoring them to really step out of their shell.”

Erasmus explains students get opportunities to do unique things. For example, they make family meals where Sullivan staff and students, and now a certain amount of public, can purchase for only $20. “A full meal for only $20, and your family at home is fed. This to be honest has taken off and the best part is that it is made from scratch and made with love by our kids. We create awesome dinners like Red Thai Chicken Curry with infused Jasmine rice, Butter Chicken with Naan, Peking Duck, complete roast dinners, and much more. Whatever we serve in our cafeteria goes home, and is presented well and executed properly. That is a pretty good deal and therefore we become a zero-waste kitchen.”

Although too numerous to list, a few other examples of things they do include making their own stock, smoking some of their own meats, and making certain kinds of pasta by hand. A lot of breads are made in-house so they have a fully operating bakery.

Erasmus comments they support local stores and farms (such as Askews, Belle Meadow and Wild Flight Farm) so that the students get to work with fresh produce. Come September, they will be supporting more local businesses.

The program not only impacts the students taking the course but the students and staff in the school.

They recently added a smoothie bar so students and staff get to purchase fresh hot and cold drinks. “We use some high-end ingredients and bring some of the best chocolate that is used in top-notch restaurants across the globe to make our pastries.”

“We made Gnocchi with Short Ribs a while ago. It was sold out in 30 minutes!  We rarely discard food and generally by 1 p.m. everything is sold out, because the food is popular. We made Crocodile Burgers where the kids got to trim a croc fillet and turn it into a burger. It was sold out in no time because everyone wanted to try it.”

“We make pizzas from scratch and sell them for $8. Whatever cuisine I teach the kids, we execute a full menu for the week so our community gets to try it all.”

“All the tasks that you would experience in the industry are available for our students to consume and learn. The coolest part about this program is that after about three weeks the students can run the kitchen”.

“From service, food safety, operations, plating, execution, catering, to costing a menu and writing a menu, it’s all covered. It is pretty amazing. Certain students that step above and beyond and earn their way get to be teacher assistants. They get recognized by receiving additional credits.”

Erasmus explains this accomplishes two things – it boosts a student’s morale and the program earns a name.  “It is rewarding to see kids that may not necessarily thrive academically, thrive in this teaching kitchen. So when people ask me what is the blessing, I say this – to see my kids succeed by taking these baby steps in education.”

“When I walked through the doors at Sullivan I had a vision that I wanted this program to not just be one of the top schools in BC for Culinary Arts, but one with an elevated standard of culinary education. We are getting there in baby steps. We are a ‘make-it-from-scratch’ teaching kitchen. Everything we do, we salvage, and we support our local farms and stores. The students get to explore global cuisine and give back to society something that sets them apart from any school.  We are lucky we live in a close-knit community and so I want to teach our students that serving your community is important, giving back is important. Due to COVID, we have not been able to step out of the box but the moment we can, we most certainly will.” 

Erasmus is one of the few female chef instructors in the province so she wants to educate the public about how the industry has changed, and how female chefs are now viewed. “It starts right here where our young girls get a chance to really be who they are. I see them thrive and they get recognized for their work. Our young kids have an opportunity of a lifetime to make a mark for themselves.”

She said the students do not have to take her class to be a chef. “Sure if that is your goal, we will help you.” This class helps all students learn how to set and meet life goals. “Our kids need that, they need that push. They also can now use social media in a better way, to showcase a different side of them, a culinary artist side of them. For this to happen, I have to run a tight ship and the level of respect is earned just like in the industry.”

Chef Erasmus is hoping that she will be able to bring the secondary school culinary apprenticeship program back to the school at some point. “I know the impact it had on me and it was because of teachers like Sue Ackerman, Alex Varga and some other professionals that pushed us for excellence, now I have a chance to give back. I have to complete my B.Ed in order to execute this. There are some educators that go above and beyond and leave an impact on you. I have been blessed with so many good mentors that helped me succeed along the way.”

“I hope that through hard work and dedication not only can we inspire our kids but collectively as educators, we are inspired by what we teach. It’s passing that same love and passion to the next generation that makes the difference.”

You can follow the amazing creations coming out of the Sullivan kitchen on Instagram at: @sasculinaryarts