When Chef Michael Olson applied for the Culinary Management program at George Brown College in 1985, he was disappointed to hear the program was full for that school year.
"I called admissions and spoke to a woman named Maria Parks," he recalls. "I said to her, 'you have to understand how important this is. I'm not going to take no for an answer.' Somehow, I talked her into letting me in."
It was a very fortunate thing that Olson was convincing enough and Parks was understanding enough to accept the young aspiring chef into the popular cooking program.
Since graduating from George Brown in 1987, Olson has worked in quality restaurants like Toronto's Cocco Lezonne and the Liberty, Oakville's Navy Blues, Jordan's Inn on the Twenty (where he met his wife Anna, host of Food Network's Sugar) and Niagara Fall's 17 Noir.
Olson is considered a pioneer in the use of fresh local ingredients and the harmonious marriage of food and wine. He is now passing his experience and passion on to a new generation of cooks at Niagara College.
Although he has made cooking his life's work, he didn't always want to be a chef.
Before going to George Brown, Olson studied sciences in university and also took a break from school to play semi-pro hockey in Japan. While he had worked many part-time jobs in restaurant and golf club kitchens in the past, it wasn't until he worked in Japan that he saw cooking as a career.
"I picked up a great respect for food and dining from the Japanese perspective," he says.
Upon his return to Canada, he researched different college programs and decided on George Brown because of the opportunities he hoped to find in Toronto.
When Olson, a Saskatchewan native, arrived in Toronto all he had with him was his bike, a suitcase and $700 but he was ready to take on the world.
"I was very into school when I was at George Brown because I had already been to university and it wasn't my first time away from home," he explains. "I felt like I was there for a purpose so I got right down to business."
At that time, the Chef School was located in Kensington Market, a neighbourhood that Olson fell in love with for the food and the people. He was also fond of the Queen Street West area where he got a part-time job at Select Bistro.
"Because I was working, I was able to apply what I was learning. In a trade like cooking, if you just go to school, you're in a vacuum where it's just the academic experience. You need to apply it immediately in a commercial environment," he says.
Olson remembers being in awe of his instructors, many of whom were big names in the culinary world. "I wanted to get as much out of these people and impress them at the same time."
Now as a teacher himself, Olson knows what it's like when the tables are turned.
"I was a little concerned that I would miss the rush of cooking and the dynamic business end of it but there are a ton of challenges in education," Olson says of his career switch from cooking to teaching in 2001. "The rush of a Saturday night service was very quickly replaced by a good class."
While teaching fills up most his plate these days, Olson somehow finds room for running Olson Foods and Bakery with his wife, consulting and occasional cooking for 17 Noir, writing food columns for the St. Catharines Standard, filming a three-minute segment for a hunting show called Canada in the Rough, writing award-winning cookbooks with Anna and fundraising for culinary-based charities like Second Harvest.
"My advice to students is to work hard but work smart so they can have a healthy lifestyle and good personal relationships," says Olson. "I've got the best home life in the world…if I didn't have that part of my life, I wouldn't enjoy what I do."