Colleen grew up in Iqaluit and attended Insuksuk High School where she joined an afterschool cooking club through Skills Nunavut. She went on to compete at the Territorial Skills Competition, winning Gold. She has represented Nunavut at National Skills Competitions in Calgary, AB and Charlottetown, PEI. She has since earned her Red Seal and currently teaches Culinary Arts at Portage College in Alberta. In 2016 she joined the Skills Canada National Technical Committee and was a judge at the National Skills Competition in Moncton, NB.

Colleen Neily, Portage College

Colleen Neily, Portage College

What sparked your interest in cooking?

I get asked this question a lot – All in all I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love cooking. I owe most of my interest to my momma. I always remember my mom cooking homemade meals from scratch. My mom always got me to help, even when I was little I used to be the potato masher; even to this day when I’m home for the holidays – I’m the only one who mashes the potatoes. Of all the celebrity chefs I’ve cooked and worked with, my mom is still the best cook I know.

Another thing I loved doing when I was a kid was decorating and garnishing the plates- Finding a way to make a pate look appealing was something I always had a knack for.

What is your fondest memory with Skills Nunavut?

This is a hard question – I have so many fond memories of Skills Nunavut. I would have to say one of my fondest memories of skills Nunavut is travelling to Prince Edward Island and competing at Nationals. While the team was in PEI, we all had our own trade competitions, but we still did a lot of activities as a team. I have made friends and professional contacts from across Canada, simply because I was part of Skills Nunavut.

In the past years I have been given a chance to repay my experience with skills; I was asked to return to Iqaluit and preform the role of Technical Chair for the Culinary component. This was a huge deal to me, a true honor. I was excited to come back to where I had grown up and be a part of something that was a huge part of my culinary experience; Skills Nunavut.

How has skills Nunavut helped you reach your current position?

Skills Nunavut has helped me so much in my career. If I hadn’t competed at Nationals in Charlottetown, I probably wouldn’t have attended the Culinary Institute of Canada in Prince Edward Island. I met instructors from the college who told me a little about the program offered at the college. I was able to see the kitchens that would later become my classrooms for two years, and eventually become my home for a couple more years.

Skills Nunavut has helped me reach my current position (at Portage College). When I first started with Skills, I had a great chef to learn from; smart and talented. I realized not too long ago that I want to help shape the future minds of our industry. Now I teach Culinary Arts, and I am currently involved with Skills Canada at the post-secondary level. I truly feel that everyone should have the opportunity to partake in a Skills program; it teaches you more than just your trade and it allows you to showcase your passion to others.

What advice do you have for young "chefs" just starting out in Nunavut about the challenges they may face?

Work hard, keep learning every day and never ever give up. People are going to question your career choice – but I simply reply with “cooking is an art; I am an artist”. Not everyone can do it. This career path is hard, demanding and ever-changing. This career choice is what I had dreamed of – being called a Chef. Being a chef comes with responsibility and consequences; but also produces pure gratification. Being a chef is hard – you can’t be a boss, you have to be a leader.

When you prepare a meal for someone and it impresses them beyond expectation that is a great feeling. The best thing about being a chef is that there is always work. You can travel the world and cook, learn new cultures and meet people who share the same passion as you do. The culinary industry is so large that there are so many possibilities.

One thing to leave you with is a quote I used to read every couple of days when I was going through culinary school – “be so good, they can’t ignore you” –Steve Martin.

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