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Passionate leader

Passionate leader

By Cheryl Mah

Believing that you can make a difference is a powerful motivator. For Donald Gyurkovits, his new role as president of the Canadian Culinary Federation (CCFCC) gives him a chance to raise the profile of the association and to promote junior chefs.

“I believe that my profession is the greatest profession in the world and I want people to know about it. I want young cooks to know about it,” says Gyurkovits.

The 47-year-old chef saw a need for change and was elected the CCFCC president last year after serving two years as president of the B.C. Chefs Association (BCCA).

“We as an industry are often overlooked and we need to be recognized in Canada. I want people to know who we are and what we’re all about. We’re good cooks but we’ve never been good at marketing ourselves,” he says.

Initiatives underway include having the Junior National Culinary Team tour across the country (demonstrations at colleges and universities) and a junior culinary exchange

“The junior chefs are very important to me. My heart has always been with the young cooks so we’re starting a junior culinary exchange across the country,” explains Gyurkovits. “It looks like the first four [still to be selected] will be going to Kelowna in August — what better place for food and culture than the Okanagan.

 

Now instead of overseeing one chapter, he has 29 chapters. “I’m up at 4:30am answering emails, I have to do a formal budget, deal with conferences and lots of travel,” he says with a laugh. “But B.C.is my home chapter and I will always be involved. When my national mandate is over, I will come back and run for a board position again.”

Gyurkovits was very involved at this year’s BC Foodservice Expo where three competitions were held including the inaugural B.C. Chinese Chef of the Year. During his BCCA presidency, Gyurkovits along with Edgar Rahal successfully created a new partnership with the three Chinese chef associations in Vancouver.

“Even though there’s a language barrier, cooking is cooking. Exchanging ideas and learning from each other is what’s so great — creating camaraderie and bridging a cultural gap,” says Gyurkovits, noting the first Chinese chef members were inducted into BCCA last March.

This February, BCCA awarded Gyurkovits with its highest honour: 2012 Chef of the Year. Unable to attend the ceremony, he was humbled when he received the call about the award.

“I was both shocked and humbled being chosen for this award. There have been many great chefs who have received this award and to be part of that company is truly an unbelievable honour,” says Gyurkovits, who received a BCCA Citation of the Year award in 2007.

His leadership and contribution to the industry was also recognized in 2010 with the Canadian Association of Foodservice Professional’s Leadership Award.

After more than 20 years in the industry, Gyurkovits is still passionate about food, teaching and giving back to the profession he loves.

“I’m proud of my career. I still get up every morning with a smile on my face that I have the best job in the world. How many people can really say they enjoy their jobs?” he says.

Born and raised in the small town of Kimberley, food has always been a big part of his life. He comes from a large family (the youngest of six) where food played a central role.

“My love of food came from my family. We always had big Sunday dinners — as many as 30 or 40 people. All the kids in the neighbourhood would want to come for Sunday dinner because I credit my mother as the only mother in the neighbourhood who could cook a roast medium rare,” recalls Gyurkovits. “My whole family cooks so it’s really fun when we get together.”

After realizing a career as a professional rugby player wasn’t practical, he began his culinary training at East Kootenay Community College (now the College of the Rockies) where he earned the first ever scholarship at the time. He moved to Vancouver during Expo 86 and enrolled in the culinary arts program at Vancouver Community College.

Upon graduating, he became the second cook at Jean Pierre’s, a fine dining French restaurant. Working at the 200 cover restaurant was a “steep learning curve” but it was also where under chef Laurent Germain, he learned the most.

“I have to give him a lot of credit for encouraging me and being a mentor even though we fought like cats and dogs. There were nights when I didn’t know if I had it to make it in this business and he helped me along,” says Gyurkovits.

He then moved onto a restaurant called Christopher’s where he got this first chef position at the age of 23, supervising a kitchen staff of six. He would continue to hone his skills cooking a variety of styles in restaurants such as Umberto and Café de Medici before eventually opening his own restaurant (1994) and then catering company (1999).

After selling his catering company in 2002, Gyurkovits joined the Commodore Ballroom/House of Blues. He describes the experience as memorable with an opportunity to watch many great artists perform. “And you know how they say band members want unique items — it’s really true,” he says, sharing a number of stories including how singer K.D. Lang only wanted green M&Ms.

In 2007, education of young chefs became a passion for Gyurkovits when he joined The Art Institute of Vancouver as an instructor.

“I’ve had a world of different experiences and the one I’ve enjoyed the most is teaching. I think my best times as a cook was at the school. I got to cook and educate young minds,” he reflects. “I enjoy passing on my knowledge. I enjoy seeing the enthusiasm in these young kids — these up and coming chefs.”

He takes great pride especially in seeing his students becoming accomplished chefs. One of hisstudents John Ho (former captain of the Junior National Culinary Team) is now the chef de partie at the world renowned Fat Duck restaurant.

“As an instructor, it’s not about your achievements, it’s about the people that you’ve helped along the way and what they achieve,” he says. “Because I was mentored, I know how important it is. It’s all about the junior chefs and mentoring the youth. I like to think I’m going to make a difference in someone’s life.”

A culinary education is an important step to career development, notes Gyurkovits, but “not just one year in a culinary school.” Like any trade, chefs spend four years in training and apprenticeships before they are fully certified.

“Nowadays more and more people are looking — for the higher positions — not just for journeyman anymore but looking for certified chef de cuisine. At the Federation, we’ve got three designations: certified working chef, certified chef de cuisine and we just got certified master chef,” he says. “The great part about being a cook is you’re always learning. If you have an attitude that you know everything, then you shouldn’t be a cook.”

Demand for qualified cooks is strong and if the forecasts are right, the profession will be facing a major shortage over the next decade. One of the biggest obstacles in addressing that looming shortage is low wages.

“We are still underpaid for what we do. It’s not an easy job. We have one of the most stressful jobs in the world,” says Gyurkovits. “We’re still considered domestics even though we’re a trade, which to me just isn’t right. I would like to see that changed.”

Adding to the problem is the high drop out rate of cooking students. Many have misconceptions about the profession. Gyurkovits says while the Food Network and celebrity chefs have certainly helped to raise the profile of the industry, it has also been a hindrance.

“They don’t show the sweat. They don’t show how you are in the kitchen for 16 hours. It’s not an easy way to make money. The kids think they’re all going to be rock stars,” he says. “They also come to school and only want to do fine dining. But I tell my students not to limit themselves. Right now one of the biggest growing segments of cooking is old folks’ homes.”

In addition to his demanding position as CCFCC president, he is currently the corporate chef at International Herbs Ltd. (IHL). IHL, headquartered in Surrey, provides culinary herbs and specialty produce throughout North America.

“The job affords me the time to be the president of CCFCC which is great,” says Gyurkovits, who works with local and national customers to showcase the company’s products. “I talk to people, take products out to chefs. The bulk of the business has been retail but now we’re moving into foodservice.”

The company focuses on innovative and fresh products. New product development is an important way to meet customer’s needs and expectations.

“Last year we developed some great salad mixes and some custom blends with really different products,” he says. “This year we’re focusing on a pilot project where chefs can have a little plot of land out at one of our farms. What we want to do is create like an urban garden on our farms. Chefs can plant their own stuff and tend to them or we can look after it. Then they know what their products are and where they come from.”

Does he have a favourite herb or vegetable? “Steak,” states Gyurkovits, fully recognizing the irony of his answer. “Yes people laugh and say chef, you don’t eat any vegetables or fruits yet you work for IHL. Don’t get me wrong, I love fresh basil love any of our fresh products but I’m a meat man. Somewhere along the way I discovered red meat and that steak tasted better than a carrot.”

He is quick to add, “I’m beginning to enjoy them more and slowly reintroducing them into my diet because I promised my wife I would look after myself better.”

Looking back over his career, he credits his success to his mentors, family and most importantly to the support of his wife Elizabeth.

“Elizabeth has been my biggest supporter. When I didn’t believe in myself, she always encouraged me,” he says. “I have to mention my big brother Bob too. My father died when I was very young so he was a father figure to me.”

With his passion for mentoring junior chefs, it’s not surprising to hear that his future goal is to return to teaching. He plans to open his own cooking school.

“I think there’s room for another school and I want it to be not just a cooking school but ultimately a hotel school where people can learn to be waiters — to get certified as waiters,” says Gyurkovits. “We don’t have certification in Canada for waiters. There is for housekeeping, front desk but not waiters.”

When he is not working, he devotes his time (and specifically Sundays) to Elizabeth, who he has been married to for 20 years. He is also an avid fisherman. He goes sturgeon fishing every year on the Fraser River and has won several Master Angler Awards from Manitoba.

With no children of his own, he affectionately calls the junior chefs his “kids.”

“I guess it’s my way of being a parent. I’ve had to sit some of them down for a hard talk,” he says. “I just want to see them succeed. I want to see the business — the profession that I love is left in profession that I love is left in good hands.”