Spotlight: Chef John Higgins
The George Brown College culinary program has been around for almost 40 years. Based in Toronto, its famous Chef School is one of the most notable in North America and is the largest facility of its kind in Canada. It’s no surprise then that the Chef School, along with the George Brown School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, attracts hundreds of applicants each year. But with just over half of the 1,400 students admitted annually making it to graduation, this is one school that sets the bar high. One person helping to set that bar is Chef John Higgins, Director of George Brown Chef School. Taking a break between his endless succession of appointments and meetings, the fun-loving Scottish-born chef serves up some wise advice on the industry along with a dash of constructive criticism:
What’s special about George Brown’s culinary program?
We put students through rigorous training. Employers say our graduates have the right skills and mindset to succeed. To expose them to different ways of doing things, we send students around the world to do their stages: China, India, South America, New York, Italy, France… Not all chef schools do that. Also, our faculty goes out into the field for stages as well, to keep abreast of changes and what’s happening in the industry.
What do you tell aspiring chefs?
Whatever you do, do it well. To achieve this you have to test things over and over and over, then test everything all over again and over some more…. Tell me, what’s the point of doing something if you don’t aim to do it well.
For a chef, what’s the secret to buying good produce?
First, you need to know where your produce is coming from. Also, you need to learn what’s in season, when and where. If you know the source then you can do a better job when choosing what to buy. Second, chefs need to check their purchases upon delivery. You’d be surprised how many don’t open the fridge until it’s time to cook. Chefs should build a relationship with their produce buyer and not be afraid to challenge him. You can only do this if you know your produce.
What do you wish produce buyers would do better?
Visit the chef’s restaurant and build a relationship with the staff there because chefs come and go, so understanding the establishment and the cuisine you are buying for is important. Also, when a buyer spends time meeting the other staff, he’s meeting the next generation of chefs. That way, he gets insight into what they are doing. Buyers should also be inviting chefs—new ones and more experienced chefs alike—to walk the Terminal with them. This way, chefs get to understand better the strains that buyers are under when sourcing produce. They also learn what’s in season, when. A good buyer presents chefs with options: ‘I can’t get you a good raspberry but I got a great gooseberry that I think would work.’
You’re a judge on Chopped Canada, the number one show in Food Network Canada’s history. How would you describe your judging style?
I tell it like it is: If I don’t like something, I’m not afraid to say so. Any other way would be settling for less—and that’s never good.