Culinary grad talks life transition in a time of COVID-19

Nathan, his wife Kaitlyn, son Atlas and family dog Jack.

Nathan Knapp-Blezius is a 2019 graduate of Niagara College’s Culinary Innovation & Food Technology program, and served as both a research assistant (2017-19) and a research associate (2019-20) in the Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre, with the Research & Innovation division. He has accepted a position as product development technician at Dare Foods in Kitchener/Waterloo, a national supplier of breads, croutons, cookies, candy and crackers to the foodservice market. 

Describe your new position with Dare Foods:

My new role is as a product development technician on the R&D/Innovation team. More specifically, I’m in cracker-world. I’ll be responsible for developing meaningful, thoughtfully-crafted crackers from trends and market insights, provided by an incredibly talented marketing/innovation team.

Within a month of accepting your position, you’ve had to sell your house, and relocate, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, it was a very busy month! One part of that was selling my house and moving to the Galt area of Cambridge. It was an unconventional selling process. Technology is incredible: virtual 3D walk-throughs (not videos) are the future of real-estate sales.

Have you been able to start your new job during these uncertain times?

Yes.. 2-3 lab days, 2-3 home days per week. Dare has reacted TREMENDOUSLY with great procedures and insight into the COVID-19 situation. We are still able to be perfectly effective and efficient in spite of the events.

It’s certainly a time of transition – on April 1, you became a first-time father during a pandemic…

I did! 10 fingers 11 toes, pretty darn good. He was an April Fool’s baby, not unexpected in my family. The hospital experience was certainly unique. They were excellent; very prepared, but with everything on high alert, it’s challenging to help keep a lady in active labour patient as we pass the multiple contamination checkpoints. There was a thousand fun – and ridiculous – stories from that day, but at the end of the day, all that matters is we have a healthy and happy son. Our only regret is that our parents and siblings can’t hold him – that part is terrible. There’re a few things wherein video-chat just isn’t the same.

Your son’s name is Atlas, seemingly apropos given the world-wide state of things. Can you tell us how you both chose the name?

It seems we could really use someone to hold up the sky in 2020 … poor little guy. In all seriousness, there’s a lot of personal reasons which would take up an article in and of itself. One thing we found was we liked unique names, but nothing that is unpronounceable, incorrectly spelled, or phonetically irritating. We also didn’t want it to be so unique that he would be the only one with it. My wife Kaitlyn pulled up an article wherein Atlas was amongst the least used names pre-2010 (less than 100 people), and in the top 150 names in 2018. Unique, but not completely uncommon. A checkmark in that column. 

Aside from Niagara College, can you give us a sense of your educational background…

I took Political Science at McMaster University, Culinary Arts at Holland College; Red Seal Culinary at College of Trades, and I have various SQF and HACCP certifications.

What led you to Niagara College?

My step-dad had done some research into the Culinary Innovation program and passed it along. It made sense for me: I love science and math, but I also love food. It was the best of both worlds.

“The people at the Innovation Centre helped me to refine my skills and realize my mistakes – something I’ll do forever … whether it’s commercialization processes, product development skills, documentation management, or other management skills…”

How has your experience with R&I’s CFWI Innovation Centre helped you prepare for this new position?

It’s all about refinement. Take a concept, or a dish, or a skill, and refine, refine, refine. Trim off the fat a tiny bit at a time until it’s something great. The people at the Innovation Centre helped me to refine my skills and realize my mistakes – something I’ll do forever. Whether it’s commercialization processes, product development skills, documentation management, or other management skills, there’s a hundred areas they helped me to refine consistently to better prepare for future opportunities. And honestly, that’s really not something that will ever change.

You have worked on quite a few projects while at R&I…can you name your favourites?

Absolutely not. I loved all my projects. I think that’s important in the research world. Most of your learning will come from failure, and a lot of R&D is done on new, trend-driven, shoot-for-the stars concepts. If you don’t like what you’re doing, it’s too easy to become bogged down in failures. At the end of the day, it only takes one success (one well-documented success that can be replicated) to launch a product. That’s why it’s impossible to pick out a favourite project – they were all laden with their own failures and successes, and each one led to something better down the road.

Some other highlights from your time at R&I…for example, you were featured in a series of videos by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and also went to Parliament Hill as part of CFI’s #IAMInnovation campaign.

Incredible opportunity! I have a life-sized poster of myself now; I tried to hang it above the bed, but my wife said it was a tad too vain. It would have been on my side! In all seriousness, the people at CFI are incredible. It was an opportunity to showcase my work and talk about the importance and future of R&D from a student perspective with policy makers. [see video here] I felt like it was something that mattered. But the most memorable part of all that actually happened afterwards. I got a hand-written letter with some disk drives and random materials from the president of CFI, Roseann O’Reilly Runte, with whom I had a lovely conversation while I was there. And this wasn’t a “thanks for coming” letter, it was a full-pager. Someone who is the president of the organization, and still takes the time – and THOUGHTFULNESS! – to send a hand-written letter to a student she may never meet again – well, I hope I can be like her one day. Talk about values and acting on values (not just talk). 

A particular faculty member who influenced you?

Sabi Bamrah [professor within the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology programs]. I am great friends with all of my faculty members. I still talk on Facebook with Amy [Amy Proulx, PhD, professor and academic program coordinator of Culinary Innovation and Food Technology], and she helped me out with so much; we even worked together on a side project for a bit! But, (sorry Amy!) at the end of the day, Sabi deserves a special mention as an influencer to me. She is kind, quiet, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and I feel like she gets the short end of the stick sometimes because she teaches a class with content that naturally can really be quite boring. But it’s so important, and she does a great job making it less boring than it could be. On top of that, she encouraged every decision I made, brought things in for some of my class projects, lent me her pressure cooker until I could get a new one, and answered texts and questions during my co-op. She is just an incredible teacher and person. And I love how she writes an honest curriculum; either you know it or you don’t, and it’s your responsibility to learn it (of course she will help if asked). There is no wishy-washy stuff. I hope I’m never wishy-washy.

What about a mentor at R&I’s CFWI Innovation Centre?

Different people for different reasons. Kelly Byer [research laboratory technologist] is a gem to talk with – she’s very funny, and she taught me quite a few scientific principles (P=F/A!). Kristine Canniff [project manager] could be my life-coach. Lyndon Ashton [centre manager] is an enigma wrapped in a riddle – he can flip from business to casual like a light-switch, and I think that is a tremendous skill (and one you can’t learn). But as for a mentor? Has to be Ana [Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo, PhD, senior food scientist]. She’s one of the only people I could ever productively argue with. And I mean that as the highest compliment. And, it’s because even though she’s much more experienced, knowledgeable, and naturally brilliant, she holds onto an honest respect for everyone. There is zero arrogance. And that’s really hard when you’re honestly that good at something! She is the kind of person that will take the time to talk to you and work with you. She’s the kind of person who would “teach a man to fish.” I hope to do more projects with Ana in the future.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

Fail hard. 100 times. And ditch the ego fast. If you think you know something, it’s usually a good signal you don’t.

You once said you want to reinvent the grocery aisle by mixing culinary arts and science; can you expand on your passion for combining both food and science…

Delicious, nutritious, inclusive, sustainable, and fiscally-responsible food that can be produced on a scale that is meaningful to an incredibly population dense (and growing) global normality. In the past, I think chefs have loudly voiced concerns with industry, whether it be about sustainability, sacrificing flavour, nutritional deficiency, strange ingredients, complex international supply chains, etc. The argument for industry, and food scientists, is the obvious necessity due to demand. So, there has been this argument back and forth for some time over the merits of each, at times quite loudly. The reality is now we may finally have the equipment, the capacity, and the consumer-driven support to make both a cohesive reality. We might not have to sacrifice one for the other. And so, my dreams for the grocery aisle are culinary-inspired, nutritionally sustainable, safe, delicious and texturally appealing products and not 15 different versions of BBQ chips. I want the focus on innovation to be in the grocery aisles, not in the restaurants, where it can affect everyone. 

You have a number of years’ experience cooking professionally – what types of capacity?

I started as a dishwasher and worked every station at various restaurants across Canada from coast-to-coast, and was the head chef of a small restaurant in Prince Edward Island. Probably the most prestigious restaurant I worked at was Clayoquot Wilderness Resort – absolutely perfect in every way, but very expensive. The restaurant I most love, right now, is Brushfire Smoke BBQ at Oast House in Niagara-on-the-Lake. You have a very extensively trained chef, one of the best I’ve ever worked with, who hung up the line on fine dining and is making dishes using the same techniques, but on paper plates. I love it. Affordable, but honest quality, great food for everybody. That’s the future.

So you are an award-winning archer – a bowman extraordinaire! Please tell us more…

I won a gold medal in Team Shooting at OFSAA 2 or 3 years in a row. I was never as good as Jesse Thompson [need square bracket explanation of who this is], but he taught me a lot. Shooting is a sport that doesn’t lie. It is entirely on you, and you get the results based on the effort you put in. There is definitely a clarity of mind when you pull the string back. It’s a chance to push the day into the back of the mind and become hyper-focused on nothing. Amazing. And it’s good for your core, abs, and chest. I’d recommend it to anyone.

And, what’s this about being a mathematics whiz?

Well, I’m not by any means trained in mathematics to any significant standard, but in elementary and high school it was definitely my strongest natural skill by a longshot. I was competitive in the Pascal, Cayley, and Fermat provincial tests in high school. I always picked up math very fast. Nowadays, I use my math skills in poker! It was my source of income in university. I play poker mostly recreationally now, but I have three big wins under my belt: 1st in a 120-person tournament; 1st in a 2,500-person tournament; and 3rd in a 1,200-person tournament. I also use my math to play other card games like Magic: The Gathering, and Hearthstone. Understanding rudimentary Hypergeometric Distribution helps.

Okay, let’s move on to the Lightning Round:

Top of your playlist:

Come Along: Cosmo Sheldrake

 Favourite books:

Anything by R.A. Salvatore

Most treasured item:

Parents. No wait… Child now. Or wife? Uh oh…

Biggest indulgence:

Gambling, or video games (I originally put my wife, but she corrected me)

Who is your hero?

Christopher Lee, or Gandalf (yes, I see the irony in that)

Favourite morning ritual:

None; I’m very spontaneous. No routine.

Most unusual talent:

I can lick my own elbow. Truth. There’s a story about that.

Proudest achievement:

My son.

Mantra you live by:

Jump first.

If you could have a billboard seen by many, what would it read?

Two windmills would be standing in a field, and there would be a speech bubble above each, and one would say, “what’s your favourite music?” and the other would say, “I’m a big metal fan.”