Mentoring the Future
By Cheryl Mah
Chefs Quarterly Spring 2013
The most important thing a successful chef can do is teach and give back to the industry. Settimio Sicoli has done that and more for a profession he is still passionate about after almost four decades.
For the past 26 years, he has been working at the Vancouver Community College (VCC), first as a culinary arts instructor and currently as the assistant department head.
“It’s been a very rewarding career and still is. I don’t go to work thinking it’s a job – it’s a pleasure to see the students learning and progressing and knowing somehow you’ve helped them along even a little bit,” he says. “I love the inspiration and the passion that I can see in the young generation.”
The 63-year-old chef has dedicated the majority of his career to mentoring and passing on his knowledge to the next generation of young cooks. He has also been a long time advocate for the profession, taking on various leadership roles in culinary associations over the years. He served two terms as a past president of the BC Chefs’ Association (BCCA) and as the western vice president for the Canadian Culinary Federation. He has sat on various industry committees as well.
“I enjoy being involved and helping to advance our profession,” says Sicoli. “It comes back to mentorship and encouraging the youth.”
Mentors serve an important role for young cooks. Most successful chefs have had a significant mentor (or mentors) in their past. For Sicoli, it was Fred Naso and Bruno Marti. Sicoli says chefs today openly share their knowledge unlike when he first started.
“I remember in the early years Canadian cuisine was dominated by German or Austrian chefs and the passing of knowledge was pretty scarce and secretive,” notes Sicoli. “Today it’s the more you pass on, the greater the pleasure and joy. Chefs have a responsibility to share their knowledge.”
Last year was especially busy for Sicoli as he was involved with mentoring the Junior National Culinary Team for the 2012 World Culinary Olympics in Germany. The junior team competed against 28 teams from around the world and took home silver medals in both the cold plate and hot plate categories.
“It was unreal to see all the talent on that stage,” says Sicoli about the Olympics. “The team did their best and I’m proud to see their growth.”
As a first generation Italian, food has always played a major role in Sicoli’s life but a cooking career was not his first choice.
His family immigrated from Italy when he was five to Blue River, B.C. He grew up in the interior and eventually attended the University of Victoria where he graduated with his B.A. in psychology and anthropology in 1973.
Sicoli thought he would become a child psychologist or an archaeologist but a summer job and the enjoyment of food led him to enrol in the professional cook training program at VCC. Graduating in 1975, he served his three-year apprenticeship at Hotel Vancouver, successfully attaining his professional Red Seal designation. He then went overseas to continue his culinary training at the Hilton International Hotel in Mainz, Germany.
“It was a great experience,” recalls Sicoli. “I learned German and got to travel around Europe.” He returned to Canada in 1981 and joined the prestigious private member University Club of Vancouver (today The Vancouver Club) as chef de partie before moving his way up to executive chef.
“Within a year after I joined we switched the menu from steak and potatoes to a lighter cuisine and the numbers went through the roof,” says Sicoli, who worked at the club for six years. “We were also the first club to have ladies come in the front door.”
In March 1987, he was asked by Fred Naso (culinary arts department head at the time) to join the faculty at VCC.
“I was ready to have a change and I discovered that I liked teaching,” says Sicoli about his decision to become a culinary arts instructor. “Fred turned the light on and introduced me to a career I never thought of at the time.” vDuring his tenure at the college, Sicoli has completed his provincial instructor diploma and taught different classes including breakfast and short order. He has held various positions from culinary arts assistant department head as well as department head to associate dean of tourism, hospitality and business division. He was also instrumental in establishing the first ever culinary arts ESL combined skills program in 1988. Sicoli became assistant department head (for second time) in 2008.
“The majority of my time now is spent on administration and I sit on different committees,” says Sicoli, who along with department head JC Felicella provide direction on the curriculum and instruction of students. While the basic foundations of cooking have not changed, food technology and equipment have. To ensure an up-to-date training experience, the department is focusing on introducing a new program in modern cooking.
“We’re hoping to start an advance program in modern cooking – a separate five week program for the industry and graduates where they will learn all the new technologies like sous vide cooking and anti-griddles,” says Sicoli.
VCC's culinary arts program is one of the most highly respected industry training programs in the country with an internationally recognized faculty.
“I’m very proud that our graduates can go out into almost any restaurant in the world and be successful. Our graduates are executive chefs of some of the best and largest places in the world,” says Sicoli.
For students to be successful, Sicoli always tells them they must have three important things: passion, commitment and attitude.
“We can teach you to be the best technical cook but you need to have the passion, the commitment and the willingness to learn to be a good cook,” says Sicoli, adding, “You never stop learning. There’s always something new or maybe something you haven’t done for awhile.” He is also honest with his students. Anyone wanting to pursue a culinary career needs to go into it with their eyes wide open.
“It’s a very hard, strenuous profession. You have to put in a lot of time but in the end it can be very rewarding,” he says. “You have to have the passion within you – you have to have that love of the food. If you have that, it’ll come.”
When it comes to cooking, his philosophy is simplicity is the best. “Don’t try to hide what the taste is. Some sauces are nice but I want to taste the flavour of the ingredient. The most simple things are the tastiest,” explains Sicoli, who still cooks at home every day. “Also use fresh product and local ingredients.”
Career highlights for Sicoli include cooking for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (at the University Club) and being asked to co-author the Canadian On Cooking textbook. The book is used in almost all the culinary colleges across Canada.
“The first edition we did in six weeks – unheard of,” says Sicoli with a chuckle. “We’re on the fifth edition and it is totally Canadian. It’s the highest selling textbook. A real honour.” Outside of work, he devotes his time to his wife Carol and family including three grandchildren. He enjoys photography, reading (big James Bond fan) and watching Formula One. For his 60th birthday, his wife surprised him with a trip to Las Vegas where he got to drive an Indy race car at the Mario Andretti Driving School.
“It was unbelievable, driving on the track at 254 km/hour,” says Sicoli. “That was a personal highlight.”