By Mike Lowe
In Part II of my Back-of-the-House series with the chefs of Niagara I visit with Chef Bruce Worden, Chef Manager of Benchmark Restaurant at the Canadian Food and Wine Institute.
I caught up with Worden at the end of another busy day managing the affairs of Benchmark. Seated at his office desk, he is on the phone placing one last order for the day. As he hangs up the phone he asks, “Is it all right to lose the hat?” The question is in reference to his tall, pleated chef’s hat. I nod in approval, mainly because the headgear makes Worden, who is a tall man to begin with, a somewhat imposing figure.
When you factor in his low, booming voice, it would be easy to think that Worden could be intimidating in the kitchen. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is one of the most engaging people you’ll meet. About the only intimidating thing about this affable chef may be his knowledge of food.
“Where should we start?” asks Worden.
“How about starting with how you got into cooking,” I reply.
“At 14 I started as a deli-slicer at a deli,” recalls Worden, “and by 17 I was in the kitchen as a dishwasher, for a short time, and then I started cooking. I was always attracted to the common sense approach to cooking.”
During a snowboarding trip out west Worden gave his resume to the food and beverage manager of a Thai restaurant.
“I had dreadlocks at the time,” says Worden. “and the manager said that he didn’t usually hire guys like me.”
That chance meeting led to an impromptu interview and Worden was hired.
Worden smiles and says, “I started on dishes and after three shifts went to work on the line.”
That trip resulted in Worden landing two jobs in Vancouver.
“I would snowboard during the day and cook at night,” he says with a grin.
Although his initial interest was in art, the focus soon switched to the culinary arts and, by the age of 18, Worden realized that he wanted to formalize his culinary education. In 1996, he began his apprenticeship at the Pillar and Post in Niagara-on-the-Lake. After two years, he worked for a summer catering with local chefs before returning to Niagara-on-the-Lake to assume the post of Chef de Partie at Queen’s Landing, working under the direction of then executive chef Stephen Treadwell.
Of his five-year stint at Queen’s Landing, Worden states, “Those years with Treadwell were instrumental.”
Worden’s culinary connection with Niagara continued with positions as executive chef at The Oban Inn and The Keefer Mansion. With the long days at the Keefer Mansion taking a toll, Worden took a position with RD Fine Foods, a supplier looking for a Niagara sales representative to deliver foraged goods and local product.
“I really enjoyed hanging out with the farmers,” Worden says of his position with RD.
From there Worden took on the executive chef post at Lookout Point Country Club, a three-year venture. During this period he consulted with chef Kyle Paton, opening St. Catharines’ first vegan restaurant, Rise Above Bakery. In 2011, Worden began teaching part-time at the CFWI.
As a vegan, Worden admits that teaching the culinary arts presents a bit of a challenge.
“It has been a bit of an ethical debate,” he says. He adds, jokingly, “I have probably lost 15 to 20 per cent of the student body. My position is to teach them how to cook, season, and respect both the environment and the food they are cooking. I can show you how to cook meat, but that doesn’t mean I have to taste it all. But, I do taste the sauce, and other aspects of the dish, where the skills are pronounced.”
When asked about his favorite food to cook, you may find his response surprising.
“Meat,” he answers, “but cooking meat is a job to me, a craft like any trade. I do take pride in making the Christmas turkey for my mom though.”
If you find this puzzling, examining a trait which is common among chefs may help. Most chefs take pride in preparing any food with perfection and get satisfaction from seeing the food enjoyed by others. This is true even when the food isn’t one their favorites, or perhaps even one that they care to eat.
Worden’s favorite foods to eat include Thai and Indian cuisine. “I love rice and veg,” he says. “I also love the colourful mixing of flavors and textures.”
Worden’s recent position as Chef Manager of Benchmark includes the planning of some interesting special events. First and second year students work in the restaurant as well as a small number of graduates who come back to apprentice there. His current focus is a series of dinners called Apprentice Alchemy. The series introduces a different four-course menu prepared by the restaurant’s apprentice chefs (please follow link above for reservation details).
Bruce Worden seems to have found a genuine balance between his duties as a culinary educator and his conscious decision not to eat meat or dairy products. And I, for one, have the utmost respect for his decision to remain steadfast to his values. Having seen him giving direction in the kitchen, it is clear that he’s an excellent teacher and confident leader. He’s also one heck of a good cook, and that’s what matters most.