Returning to school after being away for years at a time can be nerve-racking. Future students might anxiously count down their days of freedom, or take the opportunity to relax before the grind starts. Regardless, the first day of class if often full of quiet, unfamiliar faces.

When Chef Patrick Anderson first encountered Waylon McKay Roulette, it wasn’t on the first day of classes. Waylon’s parole officer had booked a tour for him with Anderson three weeks before the start of RRC Polytech’s Culinary Skills program started. Groups made Roulette nervous.

Anderson invited Roulette to the College’s Notre Dame Campus (NDC) to check out where he would be learning and cooking, and to give him a rundown of what he could expect from the program. He brought Waylon to the Indigenous Support Centre and showed him the supports available specifically for Indigenous students: space for smudging, Elders-in-Residence onsite, and Indigenous liaisons, advisors and counsellors.

Roulette, even then, was slowly coming out of a shell that had formed in response to adversity throughout his life.

He grew up in Sandy Bay First Nation and Crane River, then moved to Winnipeg at 18. He was getting into trouble out on the reservation—crime was a fact of life in Sandy Bay, and he learned to defend himself at a young age. Roulette was in and out of jail throughout his teen years and joined a gang at 15. Violence was normal to him.

Roulette broke away from the gang at around 23. He was tired of the cycles of crime.

When he left, though, he found life to be pretty lonely. His family wouldn’t speak to him because of his gang association, and the support network he had with other gang members vanished. A couple of years went by, and Roulette managed to heal the relationships with his family—they began speaking again as he worked on his new lifestyle.

At 27, Roulette decided to pursue cooking. He was inspired by TV chefs life Guy Fieri and Gordon Ramsay, whose culinary creations and passions for food spurred him to apply to the Indigenous Culinary Skills program. Attending classes and practical training gave him that avenue to open up.

“The Student Support Centre encouraged me, Roulette recalls. “I got used to groups of people and now I love it. I remember everything. The lessons that Chef Patrick and Chef Joseph (Alex) taught us, and the stories they told us—they made me feel like I belonged there. I never expected anything to be this good.”

Every morning, Roulette came in an hour early to go to the Indigenous Support Centre to smudge and chat with others—if class started at 9 am, he’d be in the Centre at 8am, smudging and composing himself for the day.

“I remember he’d always be waiting for me to open the door to the classroom,” Anderson says of Roulette. “I could tell he really wanted to be there. That’s the kind of character every chef in the world is looking for.”

Roulette’s confidence grew as he developed his practical and social skills. Other students, like Roulette before he stepped through the doors at NDC, were naturally shy. His initiative gave him the push he needed to branch out and connect with his classmates.

He sparked conversations in the classroom, asked questions of people who hadn’t had the chance to speak, and helped create a learning environment in which everyone could grow together.

As part of the program, Roulette worked on all kinds of recipes and techniques, such as blanching, smoking, prepping, line cooking and brining, and learned to make barbecue sauces, jams, bannock, breads, cheese pies and much more.

He completed his first four-month co-op work experience in the kitchen at Bistro on Notre Dame, training alongside Head Chef and Owner Dean Herkert. Roulette had a blast applying everything he learned in a real-world restaurant, and has big plans for the future.

“I want to be my own boss someday,” Roulette says. “The only way I see doing that is with my own food truck.”

Everything he’s learning in Culinary Skills—along with the connection he’s made through the program, and its supports and community—will ensure his breakthrough into the industry is a strong one.

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