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Experience is served

It was a final exam unlike anything they had ever known.

On October 21, more than 20 Culinary Management students faced the ultimate ‘heat in the kitchen’ as they prepared a five-course sit-down dinner for guests in the elegant Benchmark dining room, at NC’s Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

It was a mouth-watering menu for guests who purchased tickets to the attend the inaugural ‘Culinary Arts Final Exam Dinner’ –root salad and ginger dressing, red curry coconut sweet potato with ‘popcorn rice fruit puff,’ salmon, ocean garden-scented vegetables with Riesling sauce, chicken breast roulade, tomato chutney, potato cake, chocolate torte – along with a chance to critique the meal.

Dean Craig Youdale addresses guests at the Final Exam Dinner.

For students, it gave ‘taste test” a new meaning. The event marked the culmination of their Contemporary Food Production Course which had them preparing food for events such as on-campus culinary pop-ups since September. For the Final Exam DInner, they were graded by their professors – assessed on everything from sanitation and organization, to timing, cooking and plating, to techniques and food safety.  

“As a class who started our course in COVID-19 times, it means a lot to us … this will be the first time we have such a large, on-campus event as a part of our curriculum,” said student Dollar Thakar, who was tasked with making salad and dessert with his team for the event.

Thakar, who came to the College from India to pursue his passion for culinary arts, appreciated the opportunity to showcase his skills and connect with real customers during the event.

“It will be highly beneficial because we will get to show our skills on a larger scale and, as culinary students, we will get to experience a banquet service of a fine dining restaurant.

“I am excited to meet all the guests and get their feedback on our food.”

Working behind the scenes, Culinary Management students prepare dishes for their Final Exam Dinner.
“Wow! We voiced the need for students experiencing real-time speed, service deadlines, feeling the heat, and bang! Now in the curriculum.” – Todd Clarmo, Corporate Chef for the Charcoal Group of Restaurants

The experience was just one part of a fresh batch of culinary service offerings launched by Niagara College this fall through the introduction of its new Culinary, Tourism and Beverage Studies division and accompanying academics-based culinary service model.

The new model offers the public a taste of what students are producing in class – whether they’re picking up a takeout meal at a pop-up event, enjoying an a la carte lunch or five-course signature dinner at an on-campus venue, sampling student creations at an event or festival, and more.

While students sharpen their skills and gain essential real-world experience through the new academic-based model, the industry also benefits.

“Wow! We voiced the need for students experiencing real-time speed, service deadlines, feeling the heat, and bang! Now in the curriculum,” said Todd Clarmo, Corporate Chef for the Charcoal Group of Restaurants (Beertown, Wildcraft, and Bauer House Kitchens) who is also Chair of NC’s culinary program advisory committee. “The crew that runs this college really care about educating students for the real culinary world.”  

Guests gather in the Benchmark dining room on Oct. 21 for the Inaugural Final Exam Dinner event.

New for Fall 2022

Benchmark – which had been closed since March 2020 – now transcends its former traditional restaurant operation with a renewed purpose as a learning space and venue for a variety of ticketed lunch and dinner events and to support the Feed the Community program.

Weekly culinary pop-ups featuring food and products made by students in their culinary labs – from meals ready to enjoy or packaged for take-out – have become a prominent fixture of the Hospitality wing lobby. This fall has seen pop-ups featuring vegan take home meals, food truck themed fare, poutine and more – with some events also serving to raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society and the United Way.

Sit-down dinners are also part of the new model. In addition to October’s Final Exam Dinner, students will be presenting ticketed events with five-course dinner menus on November 25 and December 2.

A ticketed student-led signature culinary events will be held on December 16 and the popular Project Brew festival will return for Fall Term on December 10.

The division has also expanded on the Feed the Community program, giving more students a chance to help those in need while ensuring that no food goes to waste from NC’s academic programs. Culinary students have been preparing and packaging 300 meals per week for delivery to local food banks and shelters.

“This new model creates increased opportunities to connect students with the community through work with agencies and charities, allowing students to put the skills and knowledge gained in classes and labs to work while learning important lessons in social responsibility,” said Youdale.

Contemporary Food Production

A group of Culinary Management students greet guests to their Final Exam dinner on Oct. 21.
“It’s real industry standards played out within our College kitchens with real guests and many opportunities for guest feedback and interaction.” – Chef Professor Olaf Mertens

A class of more than 20 second-year Culinary Management students have been behind most of the events from Fall term to date, as part of their a newly introduced Contemporary Food Production course.

“This course has a real food service industry applied feeling, timing, standards, accuracy, pressure, and repetition; alongside guest’s comments, critics and gratification,” said Chef Professor Olaf Mertens. “It’s real industry standards played out within our College kitchens with real guests and many opportunities for guest feedback and interaction.”

Chef Mertens noted that he is ecstatic about new model and launch of new courses that equip students with experience in mass food production and repetitive skills work. Students will continue to practice French culinary cookery every week in the course while continuing to produce a ‘planted cuisine’ duplicate.

“Students elevate from cooking recipes to production, all while serving, feeding all people in our NC community and food insecurities within our Niagara neighborhoods,” said Mertens.

Students were excited about the experience they were gaining in the new course and that food they are preparing in class will be featured at a culinary pop-ups and other events.

“This course makes it exciting – to work in a real kitchen and gain hands-on experience,” said Affran Zaman, who is originally from Bangladesh and currently lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“This is more like the real world.”

New synergies

The new Culinary, Tourism and Beverage Studies division, includes three distinct schools of study for the first time: Culinary Arts; Wine, Beer and Spirits; and Hospitality and Tourism – replacing the former Canadian Food and Wine Institute. The new division is poised to spark new synergies between programs and fresh opportunities for students and the community.

Dean Youdale said that changes have been discussed for several years but when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect NC’s culinary operations more than two years ago, it became the perfect time to re-imagine the future. He noted that the past two years have also created challenges for the culinary, beverage and hospitality industries, and the new model enhances the College’s ability to support recovery and growth in these key sectors of the Niagara economy.

“We had an opportunity to flip the script and create something new and better for our students, our community, and the industries we support,” said Youdale. “I think just restarting the old model would be a lost opportunity and this new student-first approach will continue to grow and develop.”

Hospitality and Tourism Professors Janet Jakosbsen and Stephen Carroll applauded the announcement of the new division and the possibilities it will bring.

“This structure is in perfect alignment with our industry stakeholders and as such we can capitalize on expanding our experiential learning opportunities and bring more value to our students, NC and our industry partners,” said Jakobsen.

“I believe, years down the road from now, NC Hospitality and Tourism School members will look back on this exciting ‘joining of forces’ as the catalyst and launch pad for new growth, prosperity, alignment and collaboration among the united NC Culinary, Tourism and Beverage Studies division,” said Carroll.

Guests enjoy a five-course meal while students gain real-world experience.

Looking ahead

Dean Youdale is looking forward to even more initiatives in the works for Winter 2023 term, including a plan to expand culinary service offerings beyond the division’s location at the Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake to the Welland Campus, and to involve more program areas from across the College in the future.

He also expects to introduce a holiday market to the College in 2023.

“This is only beginning,” he said. “We look forward to this new model creating not only opportunities for our students, but also a chance for the community to connect to what our students are capable of.”

Students prepare meals in class for a culinary pop-up that same day.

Stay ‘in the know’

NC culinary services are open to the College community and guests. Pop-up meals will be available on Fridays at noon in limited quantities, on a first-come, first-served basis, in the Hospitality wing lobby, at the Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Find out what’s next on the menu, and get the latest information about upcoming pop-ups, festivals and ticketed dining events at

Visit NC Culinary Foodservice on Facebook @BenchmarkatNC and @ncculinaryfoodservice on Instagram for updates.

Second-year Culinary Management students deliver food which they prepared in class for a culinary pop-up in the hospitality wing. Pop-ups have been occurring weekly at the Daniel J. Patterson Campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake over the Fall term.