For years, Willow has served as a training ground for Sault College’s culinary and hospitality students. Now, with a few aesthetic enhancements, the restaurant’s ambiance matches the high quality of items offered by the fine-dining experience.
In January, the school announced changes to its teaching restaurant that include aesthetic upgrades and a new menu. Clients can order off the menu — which includes delicacies like lobster risotto and herb-crusted lamb chop — while dining in an upscale restaurant with full service.
“We were looking to take the restaurant to the next level,” said Chef Sarah Birkenhauer, a faculty member with the culinary and hospitality program.
“We started with a few renovations within the restaurant for a facelift, in terms of the bar and the flooring and painting and some new artwork, but we’re hoping to connect better with the community and draw them in and establish ourselves as our own little entity in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Students were involved in the development of the menu, in addition to the cooking of food and the front-of-house service. On Wednesday and Thursday nights, the students are practising their skills, while Friday nights Willow operates as a fully functioning restaurant.
There is even part-time employment available for students working on Friday nights.
In the past, the restaurant contacted a list of clients by email to attend set events throughout the year, but the new process opens the dining room up to a wider range of clientele, including those making reservations and walking in off the street.
“It was always open to the public, but it would fill out so fast, and it would sell out very quickly,” said Angelique Lemay, dean of the college’s culinary and hospitality school.
“Now this provides for an opportunity for the larger community to be able to experience the excellence in culinary and hospitality dining experience.”
Willow also caters local community events. Examples include serving 170 people appetizers at the gala opening of the Shadows of the Mind Film Festival in February, and serving the Chamber of Commerce’s Take 5 networking event, which welcomes an average of 300 people.
The changes enhance the educational component that can take students from the kitchens of local Sault Ste. Marie eateries to more urban settings around the world, said Lemay.
“We wanted our students to gain a competitive edge upon graduation in the culinary and hospitality field, and the hands-on, high-impact practice of working and studying in a fine-dining restaurant is what we feel provides this program with the exceptional experience that students will be able to put on their resumés,” Lemay said.
“They’ll be fully prepared to work in any establishment upon graduation.”
With a proliferation of cooking-themed TV shows flooding the airways, there’s no shortage of interest in the culinary and hospitality programs, Birkenhauer said. In the seven years since she joined Sault College’s faculty, she’s seen program numbers more than double, from about 30 enrollments to 65 across all programs.
Labs can accommodate 16 to 18 students at any one time, and smaller class sizes allow for more one-on-one time between faculty and students, Birkenhauer said.
Sault College is the only school offering training in the culinary and hospitality field in this region of Northern Ontario, Lemay noted, as the next closest programs are located at Confederation College in Thunder Bay and Canadore College in North Bay.
It’s an attractive prospect for those training in the food industry.
“We really believe that we’re providing an excellent experience comparable with our colleagues throughout the province,” Lemay added, noting that there are still spots open across programs for this coming fall.
Willow Teaching Restaurant is open Wednesday to Friday nights throughout April. Make reservations by calling 705-759-2554, ext. 2513.