It’s perhaps not terribly unusual for someone to enrol in chef’s school and pursue a career in the culinary arts.
But it’s more unusual when the other students are at least half your age.
That did not faze North Battleford resident Nora Rongve in the least, as she was determined to pursue her passion for cooking food, leaving for an intensive six-month culinary course in Vancouver.
It was a notable change for Rongve who has worked as a hairdresser for 32 years; she also worked 15 years as an interior designer.
Rongve also likes to paint, and was also involved heavily in the local Communities in Bloom efforts a few years ago.
“I’m a very creative person” who likes “to work with my hands,” Rongve told the News-Optimist recently.
Culinary school wasn’t such a stretch for someone looking to apply her creative talents. Besides, cooking was already a big part of her life.
“I’ve always been a really good cook, and my mom was an awesome cook, so I’ve learned a lot from her.”
The notion of going back to school came up one day while talking with her husband, Rob, about the idea of perhaps starting a restaurant.
“We would love to see a restaurant here in the Battlefords,” said Rongve – something with “amazing quality food, all made in-house from scratch.”
“He said, ‘Nora, I think you should go to culinary school.’”
That encouraged them to look into the possible options.
She finally decided to enroll in the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts in Vancouver, located right off of Granville Island, which had an intensive six-month culinary course there.
Rongve moved out there in September of last year. She discovered quickly that her biggest challenge initially was simply getting used to the new surroundings.
“I hated it right off the bat. I hated being away from home, because I was 53 when I went, so it was really difficult for someone like me,” said Rongve.
“It was really grueling and really, really hard. But I really started to love it after a while.”
The first few weeks were “really intense.” She was learning traditional French cuisine with French recipes.
In the advanced portion, she worked the kitchen in a restaurant that the school ran, doing sandwiches, soups, salads, appetizers and meals, and learning all the different positions. They also did shifts in the bake shop; pastry is another program offered at the institute.
It was intense, with the course starting around 7 a.m. each day and running six days a week.
The training was very hands-on; it included about an hour and a half of lecture and then practical training in the kitchen. There were written exams as well.
While it was a struggle getting used to Vancouver and being away from North Battleford, Rongve adjusted to her new surroundings and ended up making great friends with her younger classmates.
“The people that I went to school with were just awesome,” said Rongve.
“They kind of got me through it, because I didn’t know… halfway, I was thinking I don’t know if I’m going to get through this.”
Rongve hung in and graduated with her diploma in March.
After Rongve returned to North Battleford she put her training to good use very quickly, doing lunches and other projects. Her biggest project was preparing food for the Garden Party for the Birds event put on by the Canadian Mental Health Association. That involved making food for upwards of 150 people.
“Over the course of a month, I made 1,400 canapes, and then we had sliders – we had tons of food for this.”
As for the “restaurant” idea that prompted her to go back to school in the first place, Rongve is particularly interested in the microbrewery plans for the old armoury location, which until recently had been the location for the Battlefords Trade and Education Centre.
Renovation work inside the structure has already started, and there are big plans for what might go inside once it is done.
“They are going to have a little restaurant there, and I would love to take that over and do some awesome food,” said Rongve.
Her idea is for more upscale food offerings there beyond the usual “pub” food offering.
Should that come to fruition, Rongve thinks she wants to see additional chefs involved so she doesn’t shoulder all the responsibility on her own. Some of her Vancouver colleagues from school might be interested, she believes.
“I’ve put the word out to a lot of my colleagues I went to school with,” said Rongve.
In all, Rongve is really happy with her decision to return to school and encourages anyone who might be thinking of doing the same to pursue it.
“If you can go back to school, why not? You should never stop learning.”
Meet Chef Nora Rongve, who graduated this year from the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts diploma program in Vancouver (picture submitted) and who has already been active in culinary projects in North Battleford. Photo by John Cairns