If you were to step into Murline Mallette’s office on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday, you’d be looking down on the bustling, noisy heart of the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. When the market’s open, Executive Director of Liaison College has a prime view from her aerie on the second floor of Jackson Square mall.

Unfortunately, because it’s Wednesday, all that’s visible is a heavy “firewall” that blocks her view while the market’s empty.

“I call them my California shutters,” laughs Mallette.

No matter. The real action happens in the college’s kitchen, where the morning Advanced class is setting up for the Cornish Hen/Quail demo (Duck and Duck Part 2 were completed earlier this week). They’ll be having a test on quail tomorrow.

Liaison College students learn the fine art of flambe

Intensive programs for budding chefs

Founded in 1996, Liaison is a private career college that specializes in training job-ready cooks with short, intensive programs designed to maximize skills and minimize time spent in the classroom.

The Hamilton campus was opened in 2008 and has been busy ever since, teaching students in several different programs cooking and baking techniques, as well as business management, food safety and marketing.

Local, local, local

And Liaison’s emphasis on teaching students to produce consistent, high-quality food goes hand-in-hand with the principles of sustainability: locally sourced ingredients, where possible, strict attention to limiting food waste, and encouraging efficiency wherever possible.

“Most of our campuses are very close to farmers’ markets,” explains Mallette. “Our Kingston one, our Barrie one—and, of course, this one!”

The students know exactly where most of their food comes from—even, as in the case of some of their meat, when it was slaughtered.

“Oh, we know that beef is killed on Monday, and pork is killed on Thursdays,” says Mallette. “We know who they are because we’ve been out to see them. In fact, we just took a trip out to Delft Blue veal farms out in Cambridge.”

The instructors know the vendors at the farmers’ market by name, especially those who can supply specialty ingredients like halal meat.

Eliminating food waste

Sourcing food is just one aspect of sustainability for Liaison students, although it’s a big part. Food waste is another big concern—to the point that students are required to keep a bowl of trimmings, which is weighed at the end of a lesson.

“I always say to them, ‘Picture what you’re doing today, but imagine you’re the owner of the restaurant,’” explains Mallette. “You tell me you’re going to throw away two bowls of waste? I think not!”

Presentation is a big part of taste

The students are taught to use trimmings and leftovers in dishes. Vegetable cuttings go into the stock pot, as do bones and meat bits. Leftover genoise cake is used as crumbs for a cheesecake crust.

Efficiency begins in the kitchen

And it’s not only food that gets the efficiency treatment.

Teaching efficiency generally—eliminating waste of all sorts, keeping costs under control—is a big deal, although, as instructor and chef  Bill Sharpe points out, the up-front cost of many efficiency measures has to be weighed against the ultimate savings.

“A lot of the newer ovens are great, because they can multi-task [so are more efficient]—but you’re talking between $18,000 and $35,000 for one of those. How many restaurants can afford to do that?”

Weighing energy efficiency with up-front costs

For most restaurants, the up-front costs of high efficiency products are simply prohibitive, especially in the early stages.

“I think,” muses Mallette, “That from a restaurant point of view, the outlay is so huge, and your profit margins are so small, that a lot of restaurant owners look at those prices and say—it’s all about the food, and good cooking. Do I really need this high-end thing?”

Sharpe, who has owned his own restaurants in Toronto and Hamilton, and worked for years in hotel kitchens, acknowledges that the long-term gains are there, but often don’t outweigh the short-term costs.

“You’d save money and energy eventually, down the road, but that initial capital is huge. You only have so much capital expenditure you’re going to use, and you don’t want to go over that.”

But energy efficiency doesn’t have to cost a lot

He points out that there are other, more economical ways to save energy costs.

“When your own money’s involved, you think of things a little differently,” he says.

“You use everything you can—you don’t turn things on too early. When I walked into my restaurant, I never turned on all the lights, because I didn’t need them. The only lights I turned on were the ones in the kitchen. Don’t open your oven too often. Buy a chest freezer”

But both agree that sustainability is the key to a successful business—and to being a successful chef. And for chefs, sustainability is about a lot more than simply buying meat from that nice guy at the farmers’ market.

“You have to get into the mentality of being in a sustainable business,” says Sharpe. “Treat everything as if it’s your own money. Be conscientious about hydro, about gas, about waste. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

Bon appétit.

Image credits: Liaison College