Winning a medal in the prestigious Skills Ontario Competition is incredibly difficult – it takes dedication, perseverance and passion. All the necessary ingredients came together for three Parry Sound High School hospitality students.
The trio, Hazel Joy Downey, Sarah Hardie, and Keegan Love, each brought back a medal in their respective categories: baking and culinary arts.
“I was so excited to get out there on May 4 and do the best I could and show off all my hard work for those judges. I was so happy and pleased with my dishes. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I am very thankful to be given this opportunity and what helped me get through this whole experience was everyone who cheered me on from day one, especially my teacher Blair Cousins,” said Hardie, who earned silver in the culinary arts category. “When it came time for the awards ceremony, I could barely look at the screen as I was so nervous. I saw Keegan Love’s name pop up on the screen for the bronze medal and I thought for sure I was in at least fourth place; I was not expecting to see my own name on the screen for silver when I looked back up. I am very honoured to be the student holding the silver medal this year; it is way better than I could have imagined and I am beyond grateful!”
The Skills Ontario Competition is Canada’s largest skilled trades competition and traditionally hosts more than 2,400 students each May in Etobicoke. This year, the competition took place virtually. Due to the stay-at-home order and shift to virtual learning, students adapted to prepare and compete virtually in front of judges from their own kitchens.
“Leading up to the competition, I went from confident to terrified of doing the competition. Skills don’t only test your culinary skills, it also tests your mental and physical state, and how you work under pressure and stress, like real-world situations in the field,” explained Love, who earned bronze in the culinary arts category. “On the day of the ceremony, I was nervous but still hopeful. The baking category was first, and I was excited that Hazel Joy Downey, a friend of mine, placed third in baking that I was celebrating a bit, then heard my name called and freaked out and then my competitor Sarah Hardie won silver, so it was a rollercoaster of excitement that kept building. I hope to do better next year,” Love said.
Parry Sound High School is home to the prestigious Specialized High Skills Major (SHSM) tourism and hospitality program and state-of-the-art industrial kitchen.
A proud Blair Cousins, the school’s Tourism and Hospitality teacher, reflected on the competition.
“It was so exciting to share this experience with Hazel Joy Downey in her last competition at PSHS. Downey achieved her goal of earning a medal after finishing sixth in her Grade 10 year (Culinary) and losing her internet while trying to compete from the Philippines last year,” said Cousins. “It was also the school’s first baking medal at Skills. For Sarah Hardie and Keegan Love, it reinforced their efforts and sets a goal for them to become our school’s first two-time medal winners next year. Sarah and Keegan overcame many obstacles and I am so proud of them.”
With an ambitious plan, Downey, who earned bronze in the baking category, said planning and careful execution were extremely important.
“Baking was difficult to accomplish in my own kitchen especially with the big ideas I wanted to execute – from the fragile French macarons to the povitica bread and the Enchanted Forest bar cake. But careful planning and time allowances allowed me to get everything done on time.”
Upon seeing her name on the screen during the awards ceremony, Downey ‘couldn’t believe it.’
“I screamed in disbelief that I had just placed third for Skills Ontario. I rushed to call my coach and mentor, Mr. Cousins to share my excitement,” she recalled.
Of course, the success of any program can’t happen without the dedication and support of staff.
“While the students were successful, none of it happens without the support of NNDSB Director (Craig) Myles, Lisa Spencer, Liana Blaskievich and Roy Desjardins. The support of the PSHS administration Dawn Buckland, Heather Hickey and Wesley Baxter is crucial to our ability to prepare our students to take on the best in the province,” said Cousins. “We also were fortunate to access former student Cody Wallace, chef de cuisine at Cut Steakhouse in Halifax, N.S. who helped the students with a TEAMS workshop where he showed a sesame seed tuile that Sarah used in the competition and just settled the students’ nerves and helped them focus.”
Cousins noted that Chef Fintan Flynn of Canadore College and Chef Monique Cousins also provided suggestions and advice to the students.
SHSM supports students in planning for a career in the skilled trades. The hospitality and tourism program allows students to build a foundation of sector-focused knowledge and skills before graduating and entering apprenticeship training, college, university, or an entry-level position in the workplace.
Students learn about food preparation and hospitality services, connect with hospitality employers, participate in training and certification in customer service and safe food handling and gain apprenticeship opportunities upon graduation.
Earlier this year, PSHS welcomed Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Member of Provincial Parliament Norm Miller to the school for a virtual tour of the program. Both expressed their amazement with the skill and hands-on learning
taking place. In his visit, Lecce noted PSHS’s hospitality and tourism program is the “gold standard of practical skills training.”
“We have seen our incredible teachers, students, and administrators move to meet the needs of program this year. We see resilience in our students as they charge ahead, focused on gaining experience and skills that are integral to their future. Supported by teachers who prioritize the interests and goals of their students, we have been able, as a system to continue with activities that enrich educational experiences and of course, the lives of students,” said Lisa Spencer, coordinator of student success, gap closing, secondary program and SHSM.
In a typical year, former PSHS competitors would come back to coach students, mock judge or talk about their own experiences.
“This continuity of alumni who have set the standard of success and now share it with others is what makes PSHS successful,” noted Cousins.
“I am very proud of all the students that participated in the Skills 2020-21 competitions. It takes an abundance of dedication, determination, and perseverance to prepare and participate in these challenges,” said Roy Desjardins, OYAP coordinator and dual credit teacher. “Mr. Cousins, and the PSHS team, remain dedicated to helping students achieve their personal goals and strive for excellence. It is no wonder that three members of this team received awards. My hat is off to this amazing team, they are truly an inspiration to others.”
Congratulations, Hazel, Keegan, and Sarah. You have made PSHS and NNDSB proud!