On The Table: The Benchmark

Globally inspired & Locally Driven
The Benchmark

Millions of visitors are attracted to the Niagara Region each year. Executive Chef, Alex White and his wife were always visiting the Region when a job opened up at Niagara College. “My wife is a graduate from Niagara College and on my days off we would go out of the Toronto area and come to visit,” says White. “We like the area: it’s growing and calmer. When the opportunity came up, I had to jump on it,” says White.

Originally from Mississauga, White “fell into” culinary studies. “I graduated the year of the double cohort, so when I graduated there was twice the students. That year, my father passed away and I decided to teach myself to cook while trying to get through that rough patch,” says White. “I thought at least at the end I will know how to cook.” White graduated from the Culinary Management Program at Humber College and started his career in various restaurants and hotels, working his way from the bottom up.

Not only was Chef White attracted to Niagara College for the beauty of the region, but also for the diversity of the position. “This is not your average chef job,” states White. “You are teaching a lot of students and integrating all of the different programs around one table. It makes it a unique opportunity for a chef.”

White is fascinated by the local produce, wine, and tourism in the area. He describes it as the “Whole Niagara Culture.” “It is an interesting place to have a restaurant operation and be able to do the things we are able to do,” says White who enjoys taking advantage of what the entire Niagara Region has to offer to the food and beverage industry.

“We make our own wine and beer, at the College. We also have a greenhouse where the students grow our own produce,” says White. “For the most part of the summer, we have a garden out front that is just for the restaurant.” From the berries on the dessert to the flowers on the table, all aspects of the gardens are incorporated into the Benchmark experience. The college also has an orchard that includes 160 fruit trees, 30 hives that produce 3000 pounds of honey, and two acres with 16 different varieties of hops for the brewery.

Niagara College is committed to offering their students a well-rounded education that includes blending traditional cooking practices with hot food trends. “We just spent over nine million dollars and built a lab for the butchery program,” says Gary Torraville, Associate Dean, Niagara College Canadian Food and Wine Institute.

“Restaurant Canada recently conducted a chef survey and charcuterie was among the top three hot food trends,” explains Torraville. “It shows we are spending the money in the right place and tending to the needs. We feel quite good about that.” 

“Meat cutting and those techniques are a dying art, and we have expanded programs to fill a void in the lack of butcher’s trade,” explains White. With pork being an ingredient that White enjoys working with, he is at home teaching the students whole animal butchery. “They get to see where everything comes from and use the whole animal to create unique dishes,” says White.

Being a chef certainly isn’t the only career option for a Niagara College graduate. “We are not just supplying graduates to restaurants. We are supplying them to hotels, grocery stores, and all other branches of the food and beverage industry,” says White. “Students of the College spend part of their education in an intense culinary and food science training. We have four high tech labs. The students get a chance to see food production all the way through product development, nutritional analysis, quality control, and packaging,” explains White.

Over the years, White has seen a shift in customer trends. “A few years ago fine dining was the thing. Now it is casual dining that people want,” explains White. “They want to eat out, but somewhere they can afford each week not once a month.”

Although White’s flavour profile is Mediterranean, he doesn’t stick to one genre of food. “Anything goes in the kitchen or classroom. We like to say our food is ‘globally inspired and locally driven’ because we have students from all over the world,” says White. The program teaches the traditional and classic ways to cook, while encouraging students to add their own spice profile. “We challenge them to use their inspirations and the ingredients in front of them to influence what is produced,” says White. “You get that fusion into it and it is a lot of fun.” From Tandoori Smoked Salmon to Tempura Fried Ontario Apples, the College is living up to their motto as many student inspired dishes appear on the menu.

With a locally inspired menu of modest, yet succulent dishes, White enjoys the challenge of running a fully functioning kitchen with a staff of eager students. “The seasons don’t line up with the class schedules,” says White. “We are constantly training them, but not to stay and work with us like a regular restaurant, but to leave and join the workforce.” 

White enjoys the ability to showcase not only great food, but local wines. “We put high quality wines on the list from our own batch and from wineries where our graduates work,” says White.

Attending food and beverage competitions is always a proud moment for White. “Our graduates, who have gone on to gain employment across the province win a lot of medals. I look at the podium and it’s always {pointing} grad, grad, grad. Well, we kind of won anyways,” laughs White.

The Benchmark: An Experience

For the past 12 years, Niagara College has remained on the forefront of ingenuity. Construction is underway for Arts in Distillery, a creative new program designed to teach artisan distilling. “We have been developing the curriculum with Dillons Distillery and Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery & Distillery,” states Torraville.

Niagara College is definitely regarded with high esteem among the culinary institutes. “We have doubled in size and continue to grow,” says Torraville.

“It shows that we are really doing something right here,” adds White. “We are always looking to innovate, keep up with industry trends, and push the envelope.”

Benchmark Restaurant at Niagara College is a unique experience. There are few places that are student run with produce grown on site, a brewery, winery, and restaurant all rolled into one. “Niagara College brings together a variety of people. It’s an interesting conversation at the water cooler: a chef, a brewer, and a culinary scientist all talking. The ideas and things they come up with in one conversation is unbelievable,” says White. For more information visit ncbenchmark.ca.


For more articles about food & health, check out our food & drink section.

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