By Linda White
Special to The Toronto Sun
As she watched cooking shows and read cookbooks, Vanessa Gagliardi dreamed of one day becoming a chef. But after working just a few weeks in a busy kitchen, she felt like she had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
"I enjoy the atmosphere at work. It's all about teamwork," says chef apprentice Vanessa Gagliardi.
"At first, I honestly couldn't handle it," says Gagliardi, a Grade 12 student at Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School in Toronto. "I was very slow. I didn't know what I was doing."
She considered dropping out of her Grade 11 co-op placement at Oliver and Bonacini Cafe Grill at Bayview Village to explore another career path before deciding to give it another try.
"I didn't want to give up on my dream because I had a tough month. If it didn't work out, I would know I had tried my best ... I started working harder and interacting more with the people I worked with. Eventually, I got the hang of it. Even the chefs noticed I felt more confident."
When Gagliardi decided to further pursue her dream through the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP), she had the support of her teacher and the restaurant's head chef. OYAP allows her to earn credits towards her high school diploma, while the hours she works on the job are put towards journeyperson
The 17-year-old landed a summer job at the cafe and has rotated through numerous food preparation stations. She plans to attend college next fall, and
credits OYAP with giving her direction.
"It's made me grow up more. It's made me happier. All my marks have gone up," Gagliardi says. "I enjoy the atmosphere at work. It's all about teamwork."
For many students, co-op placements and apprenticeships allow them to shine.
"I don't think Vanessa's story is unique in terms of the benefits of co-op," says her teacher, Sandra Motta. "It does take a lot for students to succeed."
Motta encouraged Gagliardi to give serious thought to her future before switching placements. "She could get her credit, sure, but she'd be giving up on her dream. I told her I couldn't make her succeed. Only she could do that.
"I give Vanessa full credit for the turnaround," Motta says. "It's probably one of the toughest entry-level positions around. It's not like cooking at home. Students are expected to perform right away. In the real world, you've got to do it, do it right and do it quickly."
Work placements allow students to explore the trade without the pressure of being a paid employee.
"You need to be honest and fair with students and let them know what you expect of them," says Jeff Ward, executive chef at Oliver and Bonacini Cafe Grill.
"Our company, Oliver Bonacini, really supports (OYAP)," he says.
"We found a lot of students coming out of the system didn't meet our needs. Working in a restaurant gives them a clearer understanding of what the industry needs.
"We want to help mould and bring better employees to the industry," he says. "We have to rely on new cooks coming through the system. If we don't help develop them, we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
(Linda White (firstname.lastname@example.org
) is a freelance writer based in Brooklin, Ont.)
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