A brief history of the NAIT Hokanson Chefs in Residence

A look at one of Canada's most influential culinary programs

Since 2009, the Hokanson Chef in Residence program has welcomed the cream of the culinary crop to NAIT for an annual week of inspiration and instruction. Each has brought a distinct food philosophy and unique presence to the polytechnic.

What stands out from those visits for NAIT Culinary Arts instructors? Among the memories: “the look” from Susur Lee, the reserved humour of Amanda Cohen, the genuine graciousness of Vikram Vij and much more.

After 15 years, the program continues to make more memories while giving students a unique learning experience from some of the world's best chefs. Here’s a look at the experts who have participated in the residency since its inception, as well as an introduction to the most recent: Blair Lebsack (Cook ’01), the program's first grad and first Edmontonian (not to mention first former NAIT instructor).

Blair Lebsack, 2024

blair lebsack, 2024 nait hokanson chef in residence, at the butchery by rge rd, standing beside a long table and smiling

In 2013, Blair Lebsack (Cook ’01) and wife Caitlyn Fulton opened Rge Rd, a restaurant based on a simple but then-novel concept: support and showcase Alberta growers and producers.

Since then, it has grown in size and stature, including the addition of a retail side, The Butchery. It has also earned regional and national accolades for quality and a committment to local food that competitors, with varying degrees of success, have endeavoured to emulate.

“When it comes to really promoting and using local food, he is the Godfather. And nobody has ever done it better.”

- Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), operations manager, Culinary Arts and Professional Food Studies 

Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, 2023

john jackson and connie desousa, 2023 hokanson chefs in residence

Connie DeSousa has made appearances on Top Chef Canada, Top Chef All Stars and as a judge for the Food Network’s Fire Masters. Butchery is among her specialities.

John Jackson’s career has taken him around the world, working kitchens in Italy, New York, San Francisco and Bora Bora. He has a strong focus on farm-to-table cuisine. 

Together they own several restaurants and businesses in Calgary – CHARCUT Roast House, charbar, Rooftop Bar @ Simmons, Alley Burger, CHIX Eggshop, CHAR Catering & Events and Connie & John’s Pizza

“We are so pleased to have Connie and John join us as our chefs in residence this year. They will bring an incredible Alberta story of the culinary journey they have been on for many years.” 

- Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), operations manager, Culinary Arts and Professional Food Studies 

Jeremy Charles, 2020

Jeremy Charles, 2020 hokanson chef in residence

Co-owner and chef at Raymonds, an award-winning fine-dining restaurant in St. John’s, Newfoundland
Author of Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador

"Jeremy Charles was one of the most humble chefs I've known, and his willingness to teach and work with the students went far beyond our expectations."

- Paul Campbell (Cook '97), Cook chair

David Hawksworth, 2019

Owner of Hawksworth, Nightingale and Bel Café in Vancouver, B.C.
Author of Hawksworth: The Cookbook

"David Hawksworth was a classically trained chef in all aspects. He had very high standards and expectations from our students. That's why he has one of the best restaurants in Vancouver."

- P.C.

Rod Butters, 2018

rod butters, 2018 nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and owner of RauDZ Regional Table, Micro Bar • Bites, and Sunny’s in Kelowna, B.C. and Terrafina at Hester Creek in Oliver, B.C.
Author of The Okanagan Table: The Art of Everyday Home Cooking

“He has that gift to encourage and to teach all at the same time. He’s sincere, he listens. He’s super-connected to the students. He was always willing to go above and beyond, stay extra time, whatever we needed. It was fitting to have him here for the 10th anniversary [of Chef in Residence]. It was a celebration of everything we do.”

- P.M.

Amanda Cohen, 2017

amanda cohen, nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and owner of Dirt Candy in New York City, New York
Author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook

“She was very shy but when she got up and spoke she was funny and had great stories. When she was with the students, she was in her element. She gave constructive, honest feedback. I think the students really appreciated that.”

- Jeff Gordon (Cooking ’89), former department head, Culinary Arts and Professional Food Studies

Vikram Vij, 2016

vikram vij, nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and owner of Vij’s Restaurant in Vancouver, B.C., and Vij’s Shanti in Surrey, B.C.
Author of Vij’s At Home; Vij’s Elegant and Inspired Indian Cuisine; Vij’s Indian: Our Stories, Spices and Cherished Recipes, and more

“Vikram was one who wanted to be with the people, sharing his stories. That was the easiest year for me as the emcee [at the annual luncheon]. I just said, ‘Here’s Vikram,’ and he did the show … And he was so gracious. When he was at the airport leaving Edmonton, he sent me a text thanking me for my hospitality.”

- J.G.

“Every day he would ask us for feedback on how he had done the previous day. He was the only chef who ever did that.”

- Vinod Varshney, former chair, Culinary Arts

Michael Stadtländer, 2015

Michael Stadtländer, NAIT Hokanson chef in residence

Owner and chef of Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, ON

“He said, ‘OK, I’m going to make a meal in front of everybody.’ So he’s cutting vegetables, we’re asking questions and he’s only got yes and no answers. He wanted to show people what he could do and share his food but trying to get him to talk about himself was really hard.”

- J.G.

Lynn Crawford, 2014

lynn crawford, nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and owner of The Hearth in Toronto Pearson International Airport
Author of Pitchin’ In and At Home with Lynn Crawford

“We’d have a plan, and she’d say ‘Yup,’ and go in, and boom! Chaos! ‘We’re going to make the world’s longest piece of pasta!’”

- J.G.

Chris Cosentino, 2013

chris cosentino, nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and co-owner of Rosalie Italian Soul in Houston, Texas, and Acacia House in Napa Valley, California
Author of Beginnings: My Way to Start a Meal and Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart with Guts

“He was great with the students but it was all about the cooking. His spot was on the line with them … He was so intense and so about the food that I didn’t feel I got to know him at all. He stayed in the kitchen most of the time.”

- J.G.

Massimo Capra, 2012

massimo capra, nait hokanson chef in residence

Chef and owner of Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto in Toronto Pearson International Airport
Author of 3 Chefs: The Kitchen Men; One Pot Italian: More Than 85 Easy, Authentic Recipes; and Massimo’s Italian Kitchen: Authentic One-dish Meals from a Seasoned Chef

“Massimo was a character, with great stories, and he was great with the students. He was so easygoing. He was another person you felt comfortable eating a meal with.”

- J.G.

Susur Lee, 2011

Chef and owner of Lee and Luckee in Toronto, ON, Lee Kitchen in Toronto Pearson International Airport and, TungLok Heen in Singapore
Author of Susur: A Culinary Life

“We were having lunch on the very first day [of his residency] and the bowl of soup comes, and I start talking and he just does one of these (mimics a death stare). OK, loud and clear: when Susur eats, we don’t talk – we eat. And then when we’re done eating, we can talk again. That’s how it was the whole week.”

- P.M.

David Adjey, 2010

david adjey, nait hokanson chef in residence

Owner of Bouffe in Toronto, ON
Author of Deconstructing The Dish: Inspirations For Modernday Cuisine and Heart and Soul Cuisine from the Estates of Sunnybrook

“I was glad to see him tell the students to be humble and appreciate the facilities and the program that we have here. He also encouraged food diversity, getting students to try new foods and cuisine from different countries.”

- P.M.

Rob Feenie, 2009

rob feenie, nait hokanson chef in residence

Canada's first winner on Iron chef America and former food concept architect at the Cactus Club chain; new restaurant slated to open in 2023
Author of Rob Feenie’s Casual Classics, Feenie's: Brunch a Lunch a DinnerRob Feenie Cooks At Lumiere, and Lumiere Light: Recipes from the Tasting Bar (co-author)

“It wasn’t easy 20 years ago for a Canadian to become a world-class chef, and Rob was one of the first. He’s a real Canadian – loves hockey and winter and skiing. And he was great with the students, a real joy to see in the kitchen.”

- Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), operations manager, School of Skilled Trades

This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of techlife magazine

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