To Cook or Not to Cook

By Karen Cummings

Experience Stratford Sizzle

Barrie homemaker Joan Gilroy wanted to learn how to cook, and to do it right.  It didn’t take her long to find Chef Neil Baxter and his weekend cooking classes at Rundles Restaurant in Stratford. 

Gilroy has signed up every spring for the last 24 years. It’s a love affair with learning that she simply adores.  “There’s a great cross-section of people who go,” she says.  “Food stylists, food editors, and then people like me who just enjoy it so much.  It’s my annual fix!”

Scott Mckowen knows the feeling.  The Stratford graphic designer has been a regular at Rundles’  Tuesday night classes for the last 15 years.  “(Chef Baxter) pushes all the flavours to their maximum,” says Mckowen.  “It’s really useful to see how somebody works at this level of cooking.”

Little wonder the classes are a hit.  Neil Baxter is one of this country’s most celebrated chefs.  A native Scot, he trained in England before coming to Canada and Rundles in 1981. He has an impressive following, and a reputation for simple flavours and presentation. Baxter added “Teacher” to his resume when the Stratford Chefs School opened in 1984.    

Roam Ontario : Rundles Tomato DishRenowned Chef Neil Baxter takes pride in helping people learn to prepare gourmet meals in his kitchen at Rundles’ Restaurant. Classes run during the winter months, and of course, you eat what you make with recommended wine pairings.

Offering private classes to amateur cooks seemed like a natural extension.  Word spread. People signed up.  “I think it’s exciting for them to be in a real kitchen,” he says. “I try to make it fun ... I try to inspire people to be creative.” 

Students prepare four different four-course menus, pair their creations with wine, eat to their heart’s delight and take home a complete collection of recipes. “It’s satisfying to see people learn a new recipe, to become excited,”  Baxter says.  “So if they’re excited, I’m excited.  The whole learning curve should never stop.”  

Students like Joan Gilroy couldn’t agree more. “When I first started going 24 years ago, I just realized, this is really special... It’s just marvelous.”

You can register for a Rundles cooking class at


The Show Goes on at Stratford Chef School’s Dinner Club

No doubt about it.  Stratford is a special corner of Ontario.  Theatre.  The Avon River.  And of course, fine dining.   Restaurants are packed during the busy summer theatre season, but business typically slows in fall and winter.  Many establishments  close for the season.

It’s a partnership between The Stratford Chefs School and three local restaurants:  The Prune, Pazzo Ristorante and Rundles.  At the end of October each year, the school leases these restaurants for 16 to 18 weeks.  

Second-year students prepare dinner for the general public at The Prune from Monday to Friday under the watchful eye of an executive chef.  Prix fixe luncheons are on the menu Fridays at Pazzo Ristorante.  Meanwhile, Rundles morphs from a restaurant into a classroom from October to February.  Dining tables make way for desks, and students take over the kitchen as part of their studies.   

It’s a unique operation, and one that attracts students from all over Canada.

“The reason it’s such a great experience for them is that they actually have real  ‘on-the-ground’ experience when they leave us,” says the school’s Executive Director, Kimberley Payne.  Call it a win-win for everyone.  Students develop their skills; customers enjoy fine cuisine – often at half the price (or less) of what they might pay at the same restaurant during the summer.

The Dinner Club also gives patrons who wish the chance to make a donation to scholarships and school programming.  Grads like Mark Cutrara (The Cowbell, Toronto) and Paddy Whelan (Murray Street, Ottawa) now own and operate their own restaurants.  Celebratedgrad Ruth Klahsen runs the hugely popular Monforte Dairy.

For reservations, call 519-271-1414, or check out the website:

Jamie Oliver at George Brown College's The Chef House

Jamie Oliver at George Brown College's The Chef HouseLet Tomorrow’s Star Chefs 

Whet Your Appetite Today 



Walk into The Chef’s House, and you’re in for a behind-the-scenes treat.  

The first of its kind in Canada, it’s an independent restaurant designed as a training ground for culinary students at George Brown College.  Call it cooking, baking and serving in the
real world.  

Chef John Higgins is the Director, and he’s justifiably proud.   “My mantra is: ‘Learning is  the main ingredient’,” he says.  “It’s all about the learning.”  It’s also about a great fine dining experience for the customers.

The restaurant is architecturally stunning.  Nestled inside a refurbished warehouse, it features massive windows at street level allowing passersby to watch students at work.  

The open-concept design gives staff a bird’s eye view of both the kitchen and the front of the house.  Perhaps most intriguing of all are the cameras installed in the kitchen.  

“(The images) are projected onto screens around the restaurant,” Chef Higgins explains.  “Wherever you are, you can actually see how the kitchen is coming along with the food.”  

There’s great opportunity for interaction, too.  Feel free to ask questions of these budding pros.  Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have both visited and loved it.  

Star grads include Fraser Macfarlane of the celebrated Quatrefoil in Dundas.

A three-course lunch will set you back a very reasonable $25.  A three-course dinner is $40. Maybe one day you can tell people you sampled a meal prepared by the next Oliver or Ramsey.

Reservations online at


Roam Ontario : Cordon Bleu Bistro

A Cordon Bleu Experience Without the Sticker ShockRoam Ontario : Cordon Bleu Bistro

When people talk about great cooking, Cordon Bleu is a phrase that often pops to mind. 

Now anyone can experience this world-class French cooking at prices that are affordable, even for those
of us more accustomed to burgers and beer.

The Cordon Bleu Bistro@Signatures, which is housed in an historic mansion just steps from the Ottawa River, is an elegant French-style bistro that provides a training ground for students from the renowned Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute.   

Under the guidance of dedicated professionals, aspiring chefs hone their skills in the Bistro kitchen. “It’s a fantastic platform for students to experience work in a real restaurant as part of their classes,” says Philippe Kopcsan, General Manager of Cordon Bleu Ottawa.

“Fantastic” pretty much describes the price, too.  A three-course lunch menu is available from Wednesday to Friday for $26 plus tax. Lunch at Cordon Bleu means courses like lamb navarin and juniper bison sirloin and desserts like raspberry crème brulée and Belle Helene pear. 

Dinner is served from an affordable “a la carte” menu Wednesday through Saturday.

Enjoy ambiance?  You’re in the right place.  Specially themed dining salons offer different moods for different occasions.

Winding staircases and crystal chandeliers provide the finishing touch.

“The restaurant is designed to help the students,” says Kopcscan, “but also to share a bit of the Cordon Bleu experience with the public – people who don’t necessarily have the time to study for months or years at our schools.”

You can make a reservation online at, or by calling 613-236-2499.








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