Province Shuts Down Niagara Chef School

Province shuts down Niagara chef school
Ministry, border patrol raid site after students from India say they were used as `cheap labour'

Dale Brazao Staff Reporter
Published On Mon Feb 15 2010

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT. –They came halfway around the globe to become world-class chefs.

Now their dreams lie shattered after the province shut down a school they paid thousands of dollars to teach them about North American cuisine. Government officials who are investigating the school allege it was operating illegally and students claim they have been exploited by school owners.

The raid Friday on the Niagara-on-the-Lake Culinary School, a private career college that trained Indian students to be the chefs of tomorrow, came as the Star was investigating complaints from students ranging from bogus certification, to school officials holding on to their visas and work permits.

“The school has been shut down, and there will be fines coming,” said Annette Phillips, spokeswoman for Training, Colleges and Universities Minister John Milloy.

Enforcement agents with the Private Career Colleges Branch and Canada Border Services Agency moved quickly after “determining the school was operating illegally,” Phillips said.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Culinary School is operated by Geoffrey Bray-Cotton and his partner, Janice Bartley, an immigration consultant who teaches classes in nutrition and food safety, and also acts as the school's registrar and director of admissions.

Bray-Cotton said he has retained a lawyer and plans to appeal the suspension which he called “excessive and unfair.”

Saying he has not been given the opportunity to defend himself, Bray-Cotton called the ministry's actions in raiding the school a “knee-jerk reaction” to the negative publicity surrounding private career colleges.

The school has operated for almost 10 years without any complaints, Bray-Cotton said, adding his licence is renewed annually by the ministry so he doesn't understand why it would say he is operating illegally.

Interviewed by the Star at their home before the raid, Bray-Cotton and Bartley dismissed the allegations as “nonsense” levelled by lazy and underachieving students who were not prepared to put in the work required to become front-line chefs.

The 47 students are now in the lurch. This week they will hear if the school can somehow keep operating and if not, if they will get a refund. Some may try to go to another culinary school.

The school does not have a campus but uses the kitchen at the Peller Estates Winery Restaurant for basic food training, before placing students in six-month paid internships at restaurants across Ontario and in Banff, Alta.

A spokesman for Peller Estates confirmed the winery allows the school to use its kitchen facilities free of charge as a “good neighbour gesture” but has nothing to do with its operation.

Jason Parsons, executive chef at Peller, said he was surprised to hear of the allegations from the students because he believes the school does an excellent job training students. “I would hire any of (Bray-Cotton's) students in a heartbeat.”

Following the raid, officials posted “Notice of Immediate Suspension” on the kitchen doors advising students the ministry intends to revoke the school's registration on March 2.

Among the more serious allegations made by students is that they were used as “cheap labour” for luxury restaurants under the guise of school internships and that some of their countrymen are working in restaurants without proper permits.

Some of the students also question the validity of the International Chef diplomas they received from the school saying they are based partly on credits for courses they never took.

School officials say they are the victim of a group of subpar students.

The six students who filed complaints with the ministry had all been put on probation for missing classes, school official Bartley said. Two had received diplomas, and another was failing and about to be terminated, she said.

The other three “ran off in the middle of the night” and enrolled in the culinary program at nearby Niagara College without bothering to notify them, forcing the school to call their families in India, Bartley said.

“Who is going to protect us from unscrupulous students?” Bray-Cotton asked.

The school has 47 students, almost all from India. First-year tuition is about $13,500 which included accommodation at local homes owned by Bray-Cotton. Travel costs, insurance, books and uniforms are extra, bringing the total fees to more than $16,000 a year. Tuition for a second, optional year is more than $18,500, according to the students.

Although the agreement is for one year of study, the students say once in Canada they are offered the second year and an extension to their student visas. In some cases, they say they are offered help achieving permanent status in Canada at prices the students find exorbitant $650 for a visa extension and $6,500 for an application for permanent residency.

“I have wasted two years of my life,” a tearful Rupali Tasgaonkar, one of the students who complained, told the Star. Her parents took out a mortgage on their home in Mumbai against a student loan so she could pursue her dream of becoming a world-class chef.

Instead, she is leaving Canada later this month shattered and disillusioned by her experience.

“I am broke, depressed, and a complete mental wreck,” said Tasgaonkar, one three students to complain to both the province and Canada Immigration. “What do I have show for my two years of study in Canada? A bogus certificate?”

Tasgaonkar, 26, produced documents showing the school misspelled her name three times, calling her Targaonkar and Taskonkar on official transcripts and letters and Tasgoankar on her diploma.

Her boyfriend, Pradeep Bhosale, 25, showed the Star three transcripts. Each time he complained about mistakes, the school issued a new one, with a different set of marks. “It seems to me they just put down anything they want.”

Bhosale and Tasgaonkar say they both received credit for courses they did not take, including Emergency Heartsaver Level 1, a CPR course meant to equip them with life-saving skills.

“If somebody has a heart attack in a restaurant I wouldn't have a clue what to do,” Bhosale said. “None of us took the course, but we all got credit for it.”

Bartley, who helps teach at the school and is listed as the registrar, said students are exempt from CPR courses, but could not explain why she credited them all with a pass. The school is looking at offering the course in the future, she said.

She defended her immigration work fees as fair compared to what a lawyer would charge. She said she does not consider it a conflict of interest to be doing both their immigration work as well as teaching and being a school administrator.

Bartley also said she has kept student passports for “safekeeping” but insisted it was only at their request. The school holds all student work permits, saying they are an integral part of the program. She is also concerned that if students were allowed to keep their work permits they might go somewhere else to work, therefore violating their contract with the school.

Bray-Cotton, considered a top consultant to some of the finest dining establishments in the country, says he's at a loss to understand what prompted the students to lay the complaints.

“I'm not professing to be perfect, but what I am good at is making chefs,” said Bray-Cotton who has worked at the Savoy, London's iconic hotel, and managed at Langdon Hall near Cambridge, Ont.

He said if he is not allowed to reopen he will try to make arrangements to place his students in other institutions where they can finish their studies. “They are my responsibility. I will take care of them.”