Pros: Hands on learning, instructors really care, small class sizes, can bring own tools
Cons: Wine & Culture class was (is?) a bust, tools are expensive on site, specialty courses are extra
I went to Algonquin College during their winter program. The program as a whole is pretty good, however there are some things which need attention and hopefully have been or will be ironed out.
The setup for the course is pretty simple, you do 2 days a week in the baking labs, typically making 1 type of bread, per class with assorted pastry or desserts. Another day will be devoted to Baking Theory classes which if you are anything like me will be one of the highlights. After all, understanding the how and why makes doing things much easier. In the first semester you will need to do an English course, which was surprisingly fun. I was never one for enjoying English classes previous to this, but the instructor Rachel Murphy is amazingly talented, passionate about the job and most important to those of us who never liked English classes... shes funny and interesting. On top of those classes you will have Shop Management which will teach you how to not only setup your own bakery if/when the time comes but will also teach you how to properly look after a bakery you will work for between now and then. One class, the Wine, Food & Culture course however will be strictly online only. You will never meet your instructor so be aware of that. Unfortunately when I attended the instructor was clearly not well versed with computers and had a lot of broken links and misprints, it made for a hard go of the class. But I was there to bake not be a wine connoisseur. Second semester will see the return of bake labs, theory and shop but English and Wine will make room for Cake Decorating.
The bake labs are outfitted with Hobart machines just like you will find out in most bakeries. You will learn the safety protocols and proper usage of every machine you will use out in the real world. You start off basic learning how to make bran muffins and by the end of the course you are putting together a wedding cake. I went into the course with a fair bit of experience and knowledge about baking due to my collection of baking textbooks. I found this really helped me out in the first semester, where I was ahead of the class as far as theory went. However as second semester came around things deviated from basic understanding of how things work to having to have good steady hands. That isn't something you simply learn from a book and was a good wake up call when I was beginning to feel a little too good about myself.
In order to graduate you must put in 80 hours of co-op time. To me this seemed like very little, but for some people it seemed like it was the end of the world. Not all co-ops will pay also and it is important to realize that holding out for a paying co-op placement could likely result in you not graduating as hundreds of students all put in for the few spots which do pay. I looked at the co-op experience like this, if I go somewhere and do a good job, then chances are I can get a job there after school. So what I did is split my time up in two different shops. I started at a cupcake place doing basic grunt work, punching cookies out and working a sheeter. I knew just from talking to the owner though that if I did my hours and wanted to learn more she would let me continue to volunteer there while I gained tremendous insight into the trade, the business side as well as getting great tips and tricks to fix common mistakes. Hell to this day I still look back on things I learned there and smile knowing that by giving my time to help her with some of the more basic things in her shop she gave back to me about as much knowledge as I gained in the course itself. That said, I volunteered at least 300 hours with her and moved up from being simply just the cookie cutter to making sable cookies, baking cakes and eventually even decorating buttercream cakes. I spent other time working at a bread bakery which was an absolute rush and a totally different side of the industry from cakes. I wasn't there nearly as long due to some serious health issues in the family but the owner and staff there were just as amazing and welcoming as the cupcake bakery. I would highly recommend doing multiple co-ops if you can afford to work for free at a couple of places. Not only does it get your name out there but it will open your eyes to what the real world is like.
The chef instructors there on the most part have been working in the industry for a tremendous amount of years. They come from all over the world and each one seems to specialize in something different which makes for a tremendous experience. The one big downside to the course however is that to really specialize in something, say sugar work or chocolate you are going to have to take another course after graduation. Where as if you went to LCB then you get that knowledge all in one course. That said, I think overall this course + the extra course to specialize or just further your education will run you 10% of the cost of attending LCB Ottawa.
As far as the tools go, I highly recommend buying your own. My main problem with the school tool boxes is that when you have 20 people with exactly the same looking spatulas, spoons, whisks, etc things can get "misplaced" rather easy. I lucked out because my entire kit was given to me in pieces over Christmas so all my stuff looked different and anything that looked close to somebody else's got a strip of coloured electrical tape put on it.
Overall I really enjoyed the course, the instructors were amazing and very knowledgeable. My classmates were great as well which I feel very fortunate to say. Highly recommend attending.