Lucas Gunsch hopes to use food to build community
Lucas Gunsch’s path to baking was not orthodox. He didn't even exactly come up with the idea to pursue the career himself. But, if everything does happen for a reason, his winding journey has played out as it should.
After high school in St. Paul, where he’s from, Gunsch (Baking and Pastry Arts ’20) took a degree in Biblical studies at Millar College of the Bible. At its end, he didn’t aim to enter the ministry, but he wanted to apply its tenets to other aspects of life.
“They approach it with the intention of teaching so that you understand the importance of your faith, but also how [that] affects how you live your day-to day-life,” he says.
This influenced the way he came to look at food at his next stop in life, when he took a job as assistant manager at The Lord’s Food Bank in Rocky Mountain House. Gunsch considers this his introduction to the food industry, though he knows that most people see the work as social service, not culinary endeavour.
It was a challenge and a learning experience, two things Gunsch tends to seek out. The facility has a soup kitchen that tends to be full, and volunteers that can include people fulfilling community service hours. “It was me learning the importance of the dignity of people, as well as how important bringing a community together can be – and especially how easily that can be done around food.”
That community building improved lives, he observed, and he enjoyed being part of it. Now, as a graduate facing the uncertainty of life in the time of COVID-19, he’s letting a similar sense of service guide him, and staying open to letting it teach him along the way.
Gunsch is a collector of experiences and knowledge, and not one to hastily make major life decisions. For a long time, baking was a back burner activity for him, something he’d been doing casually since he was a teenager, partly to satisfy a raging sweet tooth. But he’d gotten so good at it, his mom pointed out the possibility of a career.
“Pretty much everybody I knew didn't have a problem seeing me go into baking and were quite excited at the possibility of [being] taste testers,” says Gunsch, who's now in his mid-twenties.
During his two years in Rocky, he passed evenings by perfecting techniques for things like bread that would last longer than store-bought stuff and, for that sugar fix, caramels. As his skills developed, so did his passion for the craft.
At that rate, sweet-tooth or not, it seems almost inevitable that Gunsch be drawn to NAIT. And, despite the pandemic, it worked out almost as beautifully as a pan of perfect croissants. His final courses would be delivered online, but some of the best hands-on instruction he could have hoped for came through almost miraculously in time.
“Pretty much everybody I knew ... were quite excited at the possibility of [being] taste testers.”
“I guess what most people would consider a coincidence along the way, from my perspective, it's a little too much to be just straight-up coincidence.”
Maybe, if one considers these examples:
- 25th Culinary Olympics. Every four years, the world’s best chefs compete in a variety of events in Germany. Gunsch and the NAIT student team earned bronze in the community catering category despite facing teams of mostly industry veterans. “Being there is an amazing experience,” says Gunsch. “For NAIT to be able to provide an opportunity to compete at the highest of international levels is quite extraordinary.” The event ran from Feb. 14 - 19. In less than two months, Germany would be shuttered by COVID-19.
- Practicum at the chocolate factory. This, too, was completed in the nick of time, just as NAIT closed its campuses this spring in response to the pandemic. For two weeks, Gunsch learned all he could at Jacek Chocolate Couture in Sherwood Park, often staying late and putting in more than the required 90 hours. Production manager Mina Hideshima was happy to have him. “He really took initiative and was always very curious about what he was working on,” she says.
- A sweet scholarship. Toward the end of the year, Gunsch won a prestigious scholarship from Callebaut Chocolate that will see him, one post-pandemic day, visit the headquarters in Montreal for an intensive chocolate-making course. “I was surprised,” he says. “There were a number of other students in my class that I thought had done better. Apparently I did better than I thought.”
Not ministry but mentorship
Like his arrival to NAIT’s Baking program, Gunsch is content to allow this mix of experiences and knowledge to simmer for now. They’re all part of the recipe for his own vision of success.
One day, like many culinary grads, he’d like to open his own shop. It would be different because of who would work there. Just as he saw opportunities to promote the dignity of clients at the food bank, Gunsch would like to offer the same to potential employees in similar circumstances. It’s not ministry – which he’s still not entirely ruling out – but he sees such mentorship as reflecting the principles he learned at Bible college.
Before that happens, though, he’s after his red seal endorsement. That is, more learning. “I think he has a really bright future,” says Hideshima. She sees it in Gunsch’s patience and his calm, deliberate demeanour. “He’s really innovative, he’s always looking to improve his skills.
“I think that’s a really big thing for anybody in this industry, that you always continue learning. School’s never the end game, neither is a job, neither is any title – just that wanting for continuous learning. He has that quality for sure.”
“That’s a really big thing for anybody in this industry, that you always continue learning."
For now, Gunsch is back to perfecting his skills, this time with his older brother as taste tester (and perhaps sweet-tooth enabler). After NAIT, Lucas moved to Calgary, where the pandemic forced his brother to isolate more vigilantly due to autoimmune conditions that would be complicated by COVID-19. It satisfied Lucas’s need to wait out the job market, and his brother’s need for company.
When he can, the younger Gunsch will go anywhere to get started on his career plan. Until then, he has a meaningful role in Calgary, not to mention a place to keep working on things like sprouted-grain bread, fruit caramels and licorice. For both brothers, says Gunsch, “it's been beneficial.”
Is this just another coincidence? Perhaps. That said, others might say that, sometimes, things have a mysterious way of working out.