Soohyeong Lee is all smiles as he shows visitors around his newest kitchen.
“I’m more used to working in basements without windows. So this is great,” said Lee, pointing to a brightly lit room, gleaming with new equipment, floor-to-ceiling windows, and even some high-tech cameras and TVs.
Lee, who’s worked in some of the top restaurants in Toronto, including Bar Isabel, Richmond Station and Skin & Bones, is now running the kitchen at the newly renovated Aurora Armoury. Part classroom, part event space, and part kitchen, it’s the centrepiece of a rejuvenation project for downtown Aurora. It’s the product of several years of planning, millions of dollars in renos, and a unique partnership between the town and the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College.
While CFWI’s courses at its Niagara-on-the-Lake home campus are geared toward people looking to work in professional kitchens, the offerings in Aurora are aimed at a much broader audience.
Just a week after the new space’s grand opening in early November, Lee was already running cooking classes for local foodies and would-be home cooks, including how to make stock from scratch, sushi rolling, and baking pastry. There are plans to offer food classes for corporate team-building exercises and birthday parties. There will be cooking classes for kids. (There will also be wine, beer and spirits-appreciation classes by instructors from the CFWI’s winemaking, brewing and distilling programs.)
“I want to show people that these are things you can do at home. You don’t have to be intimidated,” said Lee, who beat out several other candidates — including some who’d already been working for CFWI — for the job at the Armoury. Lee, who also helped more junior cooks learn on the job in professional kitchens, says he isn’t a yeller à la Gordon Ramsay.
“Everybody finds their own style in the kitchen,” said Lee. “Over time, I realized that I really enjoyed helping people learn.”
Eventually, Lee would like to also offer meat-smoking and charcuterie classes using the new smoker that’s sitting in his massive kitchen.
For CFWI, the Aurora Armoury is a toehold in the large — and lucrative — Greater Toronto Area market, acknowledged Jeffrey Steen, manager of part-time studies and corporate training at the Institute.
“This is definitely a new step into the GTA for us,” said Steen, who isn’t expecting pushback from Toronto-area culinary programs like those offered at George Brown College.
“Everyone is getting into satellite campuses and e-learning these days,” said Steen, “so it’s not like we’re the only college going to a different city.”
For the town of Aurora, the project means that where there was once an almost-derelict industrial-like building, sitting on the edge of a park, there’s now a newly renovated heritage building with a long-term tenant.
The Armoury kitchen will eventually be serving hot chocolate and baked goods at a takeout counter during the winter, and have a licensed patio overlooking the park during the summer. The $600,000 the town spent to buy the building from the Department of National Defence and $4 million spent on renovations are more than worth it, said Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas. It had widespread support on council, and among Aurora residents, Mrakas noted.
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“This is an incredibly exciting time for our town,” said Mrakas.
The CFWI signed a five-year-lease with the town of Aurora on the Armoury, with a mutual option for extending the deal at the end of the term, said Aurora’s chief accounting officer, Doug Nadorozny.
“Market rate was the basis for it, but we really wanted them here, so we found ways to make it work for both sides. But by the end of the five years, it will be up to market rates,” said Nadorozny.
But as much as the Armoury is a service and a site for existing town residents, it’s also a potential draw for Toronto residents looking to escape the city’s high real estate prices by moving to Aurora.
“People will be able to see Aurora’s small-town charm, but also that we’ve got big-city amenities like this,” said Mrakas. “You don’t have to do without.”