A last supper at Porter Creek

With Grim Reaper tattoos crawling up both arms, a shaved head and at least four silver earrings dangling from one ear, Pete d'Artois looks like a biker.

With Grim Reaper tattoos crawling up both arms, a shaved head and at least four silver earrings dangling from one ear, Pete d’Artois looks like a biker.

But the Porter Creek cooking teacher is more interested in hairnets than Harleys.

On Tuesday morning, before the kids even had their chefs’ smocks buttoned, d’Artois was barking orders:

“I need someone who’s good with a knife.

“Get on that potato peeler and don’t cut your finger off again, wear gloves.

“You’re on the special – tray those pizzas …”.

It’s the day before the school’s annual Christmas dinner and d’Artois is running the place like a professional kitchen.

He always does.

“This is as close to real life as it’s going to get; I run it like a real restaurant,” he said.

D’Artois’ only real restaurant experience was when he was 17 and worked as a short order cook.

He lasted two months.

Back then, he wasn’t interested in cooking.

He’d already decided his career path in Grade 9.

D’Artois had a great English teacher who taught his students the Cremation of Sam McGee.

“And that year, I decided I was going to be an English teacher and go to the Yukon some day,” he said.

Almost two decades later, d’Artois ended up in Watson Lake teaching English and French.

It was the early ‘90s, and rural schools took four weeks each year to teach the students electives like arts and drama, which weren’t usually offered in the smaller communities.

D’Artois didn’t know what he was going to teach.

“I was thinking, ‘I have no skills,’” he said. “I thought, ‘I could teach cooking, I guess.’”

He was given an $800 budget for the month and blew $500 of it in the first two days.

“So to make money we started selling the food we were making.”

Kids were intrigued with the biker look-a-like who baked, and d’Artois’ classes snowballed.

“So much so that we were making enough to buy $15,000 in new toys every year,” he said.

The Watson Lake school soon found itself with a 40-quart dough maker, industrial gas cooking ranges, a walk-in cooler and a commercial dishwasher.

And d’Artois didn’t stop there.

When the local pizza joint was shuttered, d’Artois and his students filled the fast-food gap with homemade frozen pizzas that weighed 3.5 pounds.

“We took apart our (competitor’s) pizza, weighed each ingredient, then tripled it,” he said.

When the competition reopened, its fresh pizzas undercut d’Artois frozen ones by $5.

But it didn’t matter.

“We were still killing them,” he said.

Until “Pizzagate.”

Someone complained to the health inspector about d’Artois and his students, who were all wearing gloves and hairnets, and their frozen pizza business was shut down.

“In a way that was a good thing,” said d’Artois, from his small office beside the Porter Creek cafeteria.

“It pushed me in a new direction.”

That’s when he started the hot-lunch program.

His students also catered local events and ran the concession during curling bonspiels.

By the time he left for Whitehorse, Watson Lake had a fully functioning cafeteria and a whole generation of kids who knew how to bake bread.

(He ran into one parent recently who raved about the bread her daughter used to bake. D’Artois gave her the recipe.)

At Porter Creek, he started all over again.

Eight years later, the school’s tiny home ec room is gone.

In its place is a fully-functioning cafeteria with stainless steel countertops, walk-in coolers and restaurant cooking ranges.

As the kids filed in for first period, they each opened a tiny plastic drawer with their name on it, pulling out an almost invisible hairnet.

D’Artois is a tough teacher.

“Have you ever seen Hell’s Kitchen – it’s not a calm, sedate place,” he said.

“We have boiling fat, sharp knives … there’s no fooling around.”

He’s not sure he would have liked himself as a teacher, he said.

But his students do.

They call him Mr. D, and as they fill stock pots, line trays with cookies and sort cutlery, it’s clear there’s a great deal of respect between the teacher and his class.

Mr. D’s not sure why his teaching style works.

“Maybe because the kids know exactly where they stand with me,” he said.

There are students in this class so inspired they plan to become cooks after graduation.

Some have taken d’Artois’ class over and over again, just to keep learning his secrets.

“And there were some kids in Watson Lake who skipped every class but mine,” he said.

D’Artois comes to life as the students suit up, but his booming voice cracks now and then, reminding him of why this is all coming to an end.

Friday was d’Artois last day.

And he went out with a bang – serving up 50 turkeys, stuffing, veggies, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings to the students and staff on Wednesday.

He started the Christmas dinners five years ago, after realizing not all his students got one at home.

At d’Artois’ home, after the bustle of the busy high-school kitchen, it’s quiet.

He doesn’t bother cooking for himself at the end of the day.

He just has a sandwich.

Then, when his lungs get bad, he gives himself IV antibiotics.

D’Artois started smoking when he was 10 years old.

He estimates he smoked a pack a day for more that three decades.

And it eventually caught up with him.

“The doctor said ‘Stop, it’s going to kill you,’” said d’Artois, who finally quit a couple years ago.

But it was too late.

His compromised lungs are forcing him out of the kitchen.

It’s something he has trouble talking about.

But d’Artois still plans to teach in schools.

He wants to tell students about the dangers of smoking.

“If I can stop one kid from making the greatest mistake I ever made, then it’s worth it,” he said.

One day, d’Artois took a break from the simmering soup stock and rising bread dough to talk to his Porter Creek students about smoking.

As he spoke, he hooked himself up to his IV, sucking the blood into the needle after finding a vein, then letting the tube start dripping.

A few of his students handed over their cigarettes when d’Artois finished.

But he’s not sure it stuck.

“They’re 17,” he said.

“They think they’re bulletproof – like I did.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com

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