The “Kid” Kept Dreaming: A Chef’s Story

By Jesse Baker, WorkStory Ambassador at University of Windsor

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Curtis Bell is one of those rare young people who decided what he wanted to do with his life shortly after it began. According to Bell, he knew he wanted to be a chef when he was about ten years old. He told his dad that he wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) by age twelve, to which his father responded: “keep dreaming kid.”

He did.

Bell’s main source of inspiration came from a chef at The Trinity Grille, a restaurant Bell frequented with his father when he was young, “The chef’s name was Micah, he was there for a really long time and always talked to me about food” Bell recalled. “He also happened to attend the CIA. I think I was also very inspired by my father and his home cooking, as well as taking me out to some impressive restaurants. I was a sponge, and he helped foster my passion.”

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Bell attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, a school many consider it to be the best culinary school in the country. “I agree with that,” Bell remembered fondly. After earning his associate’s degree Bell decided not to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “My reasoning was that much of the education within my industry is found in the field, not a classroom. During the two years that my peers spent chasing their bachelor’s, I worked my way up in the industry. I was in a well-respected management position by the time they were graduating and entering the field. I think I got the better end of the deal.”

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Photo credit: Freeman LaFleur

Curtis Bell wasted no time. The morning after graduation, he drove out to Montauk, NY, where he had a job waiting for him. “I worked at The Surf Lodge, where I worked into becoming something of a Chef Tournant, which meant I was knowledgeable about all stations and held a decent amount of responsibility. After a summer there, I came back to Denver because I had another job waiting for me [as a personal chef] as long as they liked me. I did a stage, and was offered a job at the end of the night. I was really glad that opportunity panned out.”

As a personal chef for an affluent couple in Denver and an entrepreneur working to build different companies all related to food, Bell describes himself as “almost sickly passionate person when it comes to food”.  He’s constantly working to try new things and learn more about the science and art of food.  Becoming a personal chef was never as aspiration. “Coming up in the industry, it’s not a job one thinks of as a reality, more like a fantasy,” Bell said. The opportunity totally fell in his lap, “and I ran with it”.  He was only 21 then, didn’t feel necessarily qualified, but went for it anyway and got the job. According to Bell that opportunity has opened a lot of doors for him and he is incredibly grateful for it. 

Overall, Bell thinks his success boils down to a few things: Luck, passion/ambition, great social skills and networking abilities, and general technical skills. “The industry is aggressively competitive, so it is absolutely vital you work on being the best you can in all the previously stated categories”.  Future goals include a business that would continue to allow Bell to work in many different culinary facets. The current dream is to get paid to travel in some way, and do something that makes a difference in people’s lives for the better. Bell said he thinks he’s on the right track so far.

Q&A with Curtis Bell:

Would you have done anything differently?

“I could have gone back to Cape Cod to where I did my internship and learned more than at any other job I have ever had. I could have stayed in New York after graduating and worked my way up in that vicious arena of restaurants. I could have stayed working as the Sous Chef of La Tour in Vail. Considering where I am today though, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. No regrets”

Talk about your recent trip to Vietnam and Phocomentary!

“Vietnam. What a trip! I went out there with my great friend Freeman LaFleur and his other half Josie. We had a serious goal in mind: to find the roots and true story of pho, as well as its progression to what we know of the dish today. What we experienced was far more than we expected, and I am forever changed by our journey. The culture and environment of Vietnam is so mind blowing. The people are almost too nice, and the way of life there is impressive.

Chaotic as hell, but they make everything work somehow. I could explain the trip more, but you would be better off watching the  Phocumentary which is  the reason I went to Vietnam. Freeman LaFleur is a very creative entrepreneur and quite talented with a camera. He invited me to be the film’s food expert and help him to find the true story of one of the world’s favorite noodle soups. The motivation to chase the story stems from Freeman and I enjoying pho all the way back when we first could drive and get down to the Little Saigon district of Denver, where we first went crazy for the stuff. Having recently lived near L.A, home of the largest concentration Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, Freeman ate lots of pho, and realized that no one had tried to figure out where the dish came from. The idea was born as a joke, but became more serious as he found the story to be much more complex than first thought. When he asked me to be a part of the project in January of 2015, I jumped on board immediately. In May, we did a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project. Although we were going to Vietnam whether it was a success or a failure, halfway through our trip in Vietnam, the campaign ended a success and our project was fully funded! … The film is now in the process of being put together. I am very happy with the story we found, and I think it will make for a great documentary.”

Talk about Rogue Food Works!

Rogue Food Works is a fun little venture in Denver that my talented friend Dan Gullickson pulled me into. He had an idea to have an underground dinner club where there is only one rule: that we have fun! We have a big party once a month for anywhere from 10 to 40 people. The party usually consists of a crazy meal that is 5-12 courses and quite intricate. We have used it as a platform to experiment and foster relationships with not only the guests, but also local farms and ranches. The whole thing evolves a bit every month, and has been a lot of fun to be a part of.”

Advice for an aspiring Chef?

“I would tell any aspiring chef to ask him/herself how passionate they are about food. This is a very hard industry and you have to commit your life to it. Try not to pick up bad habits, work with a purpose, and never stop learning. Any seasoned chef can tell immediately if you are worth your salt, so you better take extreme pride in what you are doing, or you will be chewed up and spit out.”

Curtis Bell is patiently waiting for the edited version of the Phocumentary, which should be available before the end of 2015. If successful this project could be a launching pad for Bell’s ultimate goal of being paid to travel AND create beautiful edibles around the world!

Family, Fiddles and Flying with Tim Chaisson

By Annette Dawm, Workstory Ambassador 

Simply put, Tim Chaisson says that his job is “to write songs and tunes, then perform them in front of people!” but his talent and work schedule is quite complex. In fact, he responded to this interview request while on a plane to Vancouver, BC. At the time, he was heading out to play at some Canada Day festivities! Far from his home on Prince Edward Island, Tim says he loves “almost everything” about his job: “I love traveling, meeting people and most of all, being on stage almost every night.”

Chaisson is from one of Canada’s largest and most prominent musical families: “My family has influenced me so much”, says Tim. “My father is a piano and fiddle player, my brothers and sister were all musicians, and almost all of my first cousins (there's 55 of them!) could play an instrument, sing or dance. There was music all around me, so I consider myself so lucky to have had an abundance of music in my life from an early age. I started playing music when I was 6 years old. I started off with the fiddle then moved over to guitar, singing and song writing. The path involved a lot of practicing as well as performing wherever I could!” In both his touring band and Celtic group, The East Pointers, Tim is accompanied by one of his 55 cousins, Koady Chaisson, who is also a multi-instrumentalist.

As for Tim, he says “it’s hard to pick a favourite” instrument. “Since the fiddle was my first instrument and has such a family connection, I may pick that. I'm by no means a master at all—far from it—but I play fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin, drums and piano.” With such a wide range of musical abilities, Tim’s music is able to fit into many genres like pop, country, and folk. This means that Tim has found himself amongst some incredibly diverse and amazing tour mates. He has performed with country acts like The Stellas (parents of Lennon and Maisy from the TV series, Nashville) and Johnny Reid. On the other side of the spectrum, he has also hit the road with rock acts like The Trews and The Goo Goo Dolls; all of which have a different sound and a different audience. When asked if he changes his set list based on who he tours with, Tim responded as follows:

“Great question! I love that I'm able to tour with such different acts, but sometimes you do have to change things a little bit here and there. For example, I toured with Johnny Reid solo, so I picked songs that work well when I'm on stage by myself. With the Goo Goo Dolls and The Trews, I had my full band so it was a bit louder – you have to keep up! The fans were different at each show, but what was really cool is that they're all music lovers, so I had a great time.”

Earlier this year, Tim released Lost in Light which was the follow up to The Other Side. Both albums were made possible by donations through Pledge Music, a crowdfunding website. In return for his fans’ generosity, Tim offered some amazing rewards, which made the experience more interactive for everyone involved. “I think getting to meet and interact with the Pledgers was the coolest part [about releasing the album via crowdfunding]. I'm still in the process of doing some house concerts and co-writing some [songs] and it's awesome. I've crowdfunded a few projects myself. It feels good to be a part of the album making process.”  For a few lucky people, Tim even acted as a tour guide of Charlottetown, complete with Anne of Green Gables’ hat and braids. (There’s a photo on Twitter!)

In 2011, Chaisson also acted as a guide on a greater scale when The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate) visited the Island:  “I was the musical director for the event” Chaisson recalls. “Basically, I organized a few numbers that they watched that afternoon. I also performed.” Tim is very proud of Prince Edward Island and he continues to make the province proud as well. At the release party for Lost in Light, he performed for a sold-out crowd of almost 600 people, his biggest audience to date as a headliner!

Tim Chaisson understands that not everyone gets to do what he does, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. According to Tim, “if you love playing music, keep doing it! I have a lot of friends who gave up on their dream of being a touring musician because they felt pressure to take a more conventional work path. If you have a passion for it, don't give up. Keep working at it, music is good for the soul!”

For more information, please visit

You can also follow Tim on Twitter and like him on Facebook.  


Out of this World: How a York University grad helped put a probe on a distant comet

The late American astronaut Neil Armstrong changed the world when he became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. The historical Apollo 11 moon landing has been described by Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space in 2001, as a “watershed moment” that inspired him and many others who followed him to suit up for space.

Jakub Urbanek (BASC ’09) was not one of them. But like Armstrong and Hadfield, Urbanek’s share of awe-inspiring space adventure has been well documented around the world. He is part of a team that recently made history by successfully landing the first-ever robotic probe on a comet.

“It’s remote control,” Urbanek says. “We were sitting here in Germany sending up commands to the spacecraft.”

The Rosetta spacecraft, also known as Europe’s comet chaser, launched into space in March 2004 to track down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a relatively small object of about four kilometres in diameter and moving at a speed as great as 135,000 kilometres per hour. At that time, Urbanek was in high school and was not particularly interested in space. But that same year at a mini-orientation and campus tour at York University, he made an “unexpected decision” to study space engineering.

“I was hooked,” Urbanek recalls. “The program at York just seemed really interesting and novel.”

Fast-forward to 2014, Urbanek, an operations engineer with the flight control team at the European Space Agency (ESA), was in the main control room of the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, tracking and operating Rosetta’s release of a probe lander named Philae and its descent to Comet 67P. Rosetta had been orbiting across the solar system for 10 years; each tele-communications message between the spacecraft and ground control takes 30 minutes to transmit. After a decade-long journey hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth, the agency’s final manoeuvre on Nov. 12, 2014 to land Philae proved to be a thrilling moment in space study.

“It was incredibly emotional, exciting, and nerve-racking,” Urbanek says. “There were a few go-no-go situations during the 13 hours leading up to the separation of Philae from the mothership. It then took more than seven hours for Philae to touchdown on the comet, but the event went pretty smoothly.”

Philae’s primary mission was to last three days, during which the robot sent analysis of samplings from the comet to Rosetta, attempted to drill into the ground, and sent back images of the comet’s surface. With data Philae delivered, scientists have been analyzing to determine the composition and structure of Comet 67P, ultimately investigating the role it may have played in the beginnings of life on Earth.

“He did quite a bit of science during those three days,” Urbanek says of the lander. “It was action-packed.”

However, with its primary battery designed to last only about 60 hours, Philae, the size of a household washing machine, went into hibernation. It had bounced on landing and ended up in the shadow of a cliff in rough terrain. Its exact location is unknown. Without the solar power it needs to operate, Philae is expected to wake up and reestablish a communications link with Rosetta when the comet nears the sun in the spring. On Feb. 14, Rosetta performed a special flyby, passing within just six kilometres of the surface of the comet, but sighting Philae was not part of the event.

“The close flyby was not intentionally planned for Valentine’s Day, but it was a bit amusing,” Urbanek says. “Rosetta and Philae have been flying together for more than 10 years and they will never return to Earth. In a way, I suppose Philae is kind of like Rosetta’s child.”

After working with the Rosetta mission for the last 2.5 years, Urbanek, who has a master’s degree in aerospace studies from the University of Toronto and trained with ESA after graduation, can’t help but humanize Rosetta and Philae just a little bit.

“We monitor the spacecraft – we take care of Rosetta. We are responsible for it and we do build up a close connection with the robots, but it’s not quite a human connection,” Urbanek says. “But for some of my colleagues who have been working on this mission for the last 10 years, Rosetta and Philae are like their children.”

Asked if he would ever suit up for space like Armstrong and Hadfield did, Urbanek answers without hesitation, “If I was offered the opportunity, I wouldn’t say no.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of York U, the magazine of York University. Reprinted with permission.

Overcoming Isolation through Art: Heather’s Story

By Annette Dawm, WorkStory Ambassador

Heather Wodhams is a part-time retail employee with a full-time passion for art and photography. “When it comes to art,” explains Heather, “nothing about it feels like a job!  It is my essence and something that brings me so much fulfillment.”

“Art and photography are an outlet for me, a way of expressing who I am as a person and what I believe in without having to really explain myself. It is a way of reaching out to the world to see how people from all walks of life respond to me and my creations.  In this way, even though I would categorize myself as an introvert, I am still able to relate to the world and feel connected so that I don’t feel isolated.”

Heather was born in Georgetown and raised in Tara, Ontario with “an incredibly active imagination”. She has always had a love for reading fiction and being out in nature, which is often reflected in her work today: “I believed, and still do, that all life is precious and that there is importance and strength even in the smallest things, maybe because I’m so small myself!  I realized that I could help other people see what I saw by recreating or documenting things that inspired me.... It becomes quite obvious from looking at my work that nature is a prevalent and recurring theme in anything that I do.  It is ever-changing and provides endless inspiration.”

Nature is something that Heather has become quite at ease with, but that doesn’t mean she is a one-trick pony. Wodhams has created a diverse body of work using a variety of methods including, but not limited to: photography, collages, painting, illustrations, digital art and more. She is always willing to work outside of her comfort zone and to try something new:

“In recent months, I have started photographing people and families, something entirely new and challenging to me.  But I don’t limit myself to any one subject-- the same way I don’t constrain myself to any one medium.  People make requests for things I’ve never done, most recently photographing cars, and I love the challenge!  Still, lately I do have an affinity for watercolour, ink, and of course any type of photography.... I work in a variety of mediums because I never want to become complacent, or comfortable with what I am doing.  There is a vulnerability and an excitement that comes from working with a material that you haven’t yet mastered.  For me, art is not about flaunting my abilities. It’s about constantly learning and growing.“

 Although being an artist can be a solitary occupation, Heather is open to collaborations. One of her earliest collaborations was in Grade 12 at Chesley District High School (now Chesley District Community School) where, at the time, the entire student body consisted of  only 300 people. Heather was chosen to create a mural that would be on display in one of the school’s hallways. She painted the Chesley Cougar mascot in front of several yellow and black bricks. Then each brick was filled in with a unique design created by the equally unique individuals in Heather’s graduating class. She recalls the experience as follows:

“Back at CDHS, I felt so strongly that the school was very special in that we were a tight-knit group of students.  So when I had the opportunity to create the mural I knew I wanted it to represent the students and the bond we shared, to be a lasting tribute to the positive aspects of high school. I absolutely loved to see the people filling in their own section of brick on the mural, because they were the building blocks of the school community and it helped to show their diversity and individualism.  I was warned that vandalism may happen to the piece later on and I thought ‘well, if I give these students the opportunity to be a part of this mural they will be much less likely to want to deface something they helped create’.  It was a way of working with my peers instead of isolating myself from them.”

Today, Heather continues to collaborate through commissioning her work, which gives her the chance to create something that she would not have necessarily thought of on her own. She has a connected with others from around the world through her Facebook page and  Instagram account which allow her to display and sell her work without being in “a traditional gallery setting”.

Even though she excels at what she does, Heather’s journey into the art world has not always been easy and has taken some unexpected turns. Before working with a variety of mediums, Wodhams mostly focussed on painting in college. This ended up depleting her creativity instead of increasing it. She admits that she was at a point where she didn’t paint for “over a year” after she graduated from Fanshawe. However, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it opened her eyes to other creative and work-related opportunities:

“After high school I made the difficult decision of going to post-secondary to study art.  It made sense to my friends and family, but to me there was always a fear a failure, and of coming out the other side with nothing but debt and a useless diploma.  I graduated in 2010 from the Fanshawe Fine Arts program and immediately got a job at Fotoart (a camera and photography store).  From there my passion for photography grew exponentially. I was then offered a job at Lens Rentals Canada (LRC) and jumped at the opportunity to connect with photographers from all across Canada, and to use gear that I could have normally only dreamed of using.  These jobs helped me gain a confidence and a drive to want to be my own boss, focus on my own business and see if I could apply the things I learned to my career as a freelance artist.  So with some hesitancy, I left LRC in October 2014 to start my own venture, which of course leads us to the here and now!”

Currently, Wodhams’ struggles with art are more positive because her mind is now over-run with ideas and it is difficult “to bring them all to reality!” For Heather, each new idea leads to another, “so that the thrill of a new creation never fades.” In the future, she would like to continue learning the video editing process as well as working with stained glass and jewelry-making!

In the words of the beloved “Ms. Frizzle” from The Magic School Bus, Heather Wodhams would advise her younger-self to “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy.” She emphasizes, “If there is one thing I could tell my young artist-self, it would be to not feel pressure from anyone to alter the way you create art.  We all have our own process and even though some may not understand yours, the important thing is that you do.  Even if you can’t explain why you create, there is an instinct within you that leads you in completing a piece. Trying to fit yourself into a mold of what an artist is will quickly drain any joy and passion you had for art.  Trust your instincts....  After all, art can be an incredibly personal and intimate creation, and to others it is simply a whimsical outlet, so just try to maintain a truth with yourself and that way no matter what anyone thinks, you will feel confident in your work knowing that you love it.”

Melissa Appleton: A Career in Conflict Resolution

By Emma Kushnir, WorkStory Ambassador

When Melissa Appleton took the “What colour is my parachute?” quiz in school, it always told her to become a lawyer, social worker or psychologist, but she knew those traditional jobs were not the right fit. Thus she entered McMaster University’s interdisciplinary Arts and Science Program with no idea of what to do with her life. Soon she discovered all the electives she had picked and enjoyed were under the Peace Studies umbrella. This was partially influenced by the fact that she lived in Israel for a year after high school. She graduated from McMaster University with an honours degree in Peace Studies and planned to work internationally in the Balkans (a region in Southeast Europe) with a local NGO, which produced social educational theatre for young people. Through the experience she learned that international development was still not the right fit for her, but also realized she needed more concrete skills. Melissa continued her graduate education at Columbia University for Peace Education, oriented towards practice with a focus on conflict resolution.

In 2008, Melissa started working at a local mediation organization, the New York Peace Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. The New York Peace Institute is one of the largest community mediation organizations in the United States. Through state and city funding, the organization offers free mediation and conflict resolution services to the New York City community. Mediation is defined by the New York Peace Institute’s website as “a conversation between two or more people, led by a trained, neutral mediator, and is a less expensive, time-saving alternative to court”. They allow people to settle their differences, to get what they need or even to just be heard, for a myriad of different reasons. Melissa started there as the Outreach Coordinator, but now acts as the Program Manager.  As the program manager, she “focuses on building and maintaining referral relationships, and increasing use of the services through the development of programs to meet the needs of the community”.

She explains her inspiration was from her upbringing. She was very involved in the social justice-oriented Jewish youth movement as a child, which largely impacted her life by introducing her to “isms” such as racism and sexism at an early age. This not only got her care about the world and other people, but also started her love of conflict resolution, and the facilitation and training of it. Melissa enlightens, “I didn’t go into school intending to work in mediation or conflict resolution… I was honestly unaware of the option, but given my sensibility and interests, it makes perfect sense that I landed in this field.”

When asked about why she loves her job, she replied “mediation is [a] very rewarding and engaging occupation for me. I am continuously challenged to grow, to learn, and to improve my practice. With my clients it’s a privilege to support and witness people making transformative decisions, and moving forward in ways that make their lives better”.  Melissa explains that on her path there was,  of course,  the challenges that people face when their career falls outside of traditional career options, but the hardest part was really just finding the right job.

Melissa’s advice for people figuring out what they want to do is “talk to people, LOTS of people, people you know and people you don’t, and ask them about how they figured it out, and what lessons they learned from their experiences. Don’t limit yourself to the easy options, the ones that have their own professional degrees in school.  And stand firm against people who pressure you into these standard careers. There are so many different ways to make a living. Some of them just require some extra creativity, willingness to work hard, and comfort with the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Do internships at places you find intriguing. By volunteering, you get to see what the day-to-day reality actually looks like. Internships are also a tremendous networking tool, do good work and people will want to help you moving forward.”

To learn more about mediation and the New York Peace Institute visit