The art of service

There's a new place to get lunch in Whitehorse. It offers upscale grub and service, for just $13.95 plus tax. But you won't find any advertisements about this. For now, Yukon College's Hilltop Bistro is keeping a low profile, as the new restaurant gets up and running...

There’s a new place to get lunch in Whitehorse.

It offers upscale grub and service, for just $13.95 plus tax.

But you won’t find any advertisements about this. For now, Yukon College’s Hilltop Bistro is keeping a low profile, as the new restaurant gets up and running.

It opened this autumn, providing lunches on Mondays and Wednesdays. The swish food is prepared by the college’s culinary arts students.

You start with either broccoli, red pepper and cheddar chowder or spinach and apple salad with crispy almonds.

That’s followed by either a steak sandwich on toasted garlic bread with tomato-black olive relish and skillet fries or farfalle pasta with asiago cheese.

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The servers, who are dressed up in white shirts and black vests and slacks, are students, too, enrolled in the college’s first-ever food and beverage operations program, colloquially known as Hospitality 101.

The aim of the eight-month diploma is to produce a cohort of professional food servers – the sort who can effortlessly pop a wine bottle, light a flambe dessert or mix a caesar salad at the table of a fine French restaurant.

Students also learn bartending skills and how to run a big catered event. And, to round out their management expertise, students are taught accounting, communications, marketing, and leadership skills.

When paired with the college’s culinary arts program, graduates ought to possess all the skills needed to run their own restaurant, said Craig Hansen, who teaches the program.

Some may wonder why servers would take a year-long course, when such jobs are often viewed as temporary, rather than careers. “I completely disagree with that,” said Hansen. “And I’m not trying to be snobbish, or anything like that.”

For him, quality food goes hand-in-hand with quality service.

“If I’m going to pay $35 for a steak, I could prepare at home for my friends for substantially less, I’d better get some professional service.”

Hansen trained at a swanky Banff restaurant run by a Swiss chef in the early 1980s. At the time, the restaurant hired all its kitchen staff from Europe.

“Being a server in Europe is considered a lifelong trade. It’s not looked on as it is here, as a job you hold until you find a real career.”

In Banff, Hansen only earned three dollars an hour in wages. But, at his peak, he pulled in $5,000 in tips in one week. His best night, he earned $1,200.

While Whitehorse doesn’t boast any place so extravagant, Hansen expects servers at posher restaurants may net $300 to $400 in tips on busy nights.

But, at the bistro, students don’t pocket their tips. Instead, it’s all pooled in a travel fund. With help from a fundraiser planned for later in the year, it’s hoped the students will go on a “field excursion” to an Outside destination.

“Vegas is at the top of the pile,” said Hansen.

Connor Nugent, 23, has already taken the college’s culinary program. The born-and-raised Whitehorse resident hopes to eventually open his own restaurant, either here, or in Calgary.

“Or else I’ll go work on cruise ships,” he said.

He got his first restaurant job at McDonald’s eight years ago. Nugent currently works at the Westmark Hotel.

Jennifer Joe, 28, has worked in the kitchens of mining camps. She also hopes to open her own restaurant one day – perhaps in her home town of Carmacks. Joe reckons there are enough American RVers crossing through in the summer months to do tidy business.

So far, the course has made Joe interested in the finest points of pairing wine with food – something she hadn’t given much thought to before. “It really blew me away,” she said.

No wine is served on the premises yet. But the bistro is licensed, and by January, students will be able to serve alcohol.

The bistro is a cozy dining room that was once an early childhood classroom. It has yellow-painted walls, big windows, mood lighting and cloth napkins.

The space also doubles as an art gallery. Currently, acrylic landscapes by Jane Isakson are on display.

The bistro is able to hold 40 customers. For now, it typically serves approximately 15 people each day.

It’s recommended that you make a reservation, although they do accept a few walk-in customers. You can do so by emailing bistroreserverations@yukoncollege.yk.ca.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.

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