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Dicing with menu creation

Onions sauteed in Irn Bru is just one of the culinary delights competing to feature on a hotel menu. Jean McLeish reports

Onions sauteed in Irn Bru is just one of the culinary delights competing to feature on a hotel menu. Jean McLeish reports

They are the kind of cooks you would be nervous about asking round for dinner - with their fancy sauces and slick presentation, returning the hospitality may involve raising your game.

But these chefs are only 13 and 14 years old and one of the dishes they have created will be featuring on the menu at an Aberdeenshire hotel.

As I watch, hotelier Ewan Kirkbride and chef Scott Stephen are deciding which creation will win prestigious billing on the menu at the Tor-Na- Coille Hotel and Restaurant on Royal Deeside. It's a bit like Master Chef for schools in the home economics department at Banchory Academy and one or two teenagers are showing signs of tension.

There were 150 second-year pupils preparing dishes in pairs in the first round of this challenge and now the final eight teams are cooking for a place on the menu. In the first round, dishes like black pudding and quail's egg featured - ideas the teenagers devised and prepared on their own.

Jenny Lusby, 13, is making salmon and cream cheese parcels with partner Robert Daniel, also 13. "I like vol-au-vents, so I thought I could do it with a twist with salmon," says Jenny, anxiously waiting for vol-au-vent cases to come out of the oven.

Inspiration for this dish with salmon, cream cheese and chives came not from Jamie, Nigella or Gordon, but nearer to home. "We have chicken vol- au-vents in the canteen," says Jenny, who is busy assembling a side salad of rocket dressed with oil and balsamic vinegar.

At a nearby hob, another second-year, Polly Christie, is thickening a whisky cream sauce to accompany their haggis parcels: "I just made it up myself," she says.

They have been briefed to use Scottish produce for their starter and Polly and her partner Cameron Cowie, 13, have produced a double whammy. They are using whisky for the cream sauce and Scotland's other national drink, Irn Bru, to saute onions, which will sit separately alongside the haggis parcels.

The hotel director and chef love the idea of cooking the onions with Irn Bru and once they have tasted the dish, they are even more enthusiastic and choose it as the winning starter. "It extracts the sweetness of the onions, but you still get left with this really nice Irn Bru after-taste," says senior sous-chef Scott Stephen.

This cook-off is just one aspect of a cross-curricular enterprise project set up as part of a partnership between the hotel and the school. Their link developed following a business breakfast the school held to forge connections with firms in their community to encourage enterprise among pupils in line with Curriculum for Excellence.

"This enterprise project is based around the theme of promoting the hotel and the pupils developing their cooking and creativity skills," says Lorraine Brand, PT business education.

Her department worked on the venture with the hotel - along with the art, home economics and English departments. "The home economics department is creating these dishes to fit in with the image the hotel has, and in business education they have been producing tourist information leaflets that would promote the hotel to visitors to the area," she says.

Hotelier Ewan Kirkpatrick is delighted with the outcome. "These kids are just brilliant," he says. "It's been fantastic."

`The standard was very, very high'

He has a big heart to invite 150 teenagers to come and explore his country house hotel. But Ewan Kirkpatrick gets a buzz out of this partnership with Banchory Academy and he recognises that teenagers can bring more than starters to the table.

Looking at businesses with fresh eyes and unconstrained creativity, they sometimes come up with ideas that might add value.

"The whole of second year came to be shown round. One of the girls said `Do you have Facebook for the hotel?'," Mr Kirkpatrick explains.

"I said `No, we don't' and she said `Why not?' And actually she's quite right. So we will now have Facebook before long," he says.

He has also been impressed by the youngsters' ideas for adverts and promotional material for the hotel and acknowledges that they think outside the box, producing ideas that grab attention.

Teachers have seen the benefits of making links with outside professionals too - introducing young people to new skills and future possibilities. The pupils linked up with a photographer who suggested techniques to illustrate promotional materials.

"This has been very real and very relevant," says the school's head, Sheila Di Maio.

Mrs Di Maio is also impressed with the pupils' culinary success, but admits quails' eggs are unlikely to feature on her own menu tonight.

Scott Stephen, 28, senior sous-chef from the Tor-Na-Coille Hotel and Restaurant is a former pupil from the Gordon Schools, Huntly, but was also a pupil at Banchory Academy for six months.

"I just gave them advice and pointers. They were left entirely to their own devices," he says.

"The standard was very, very high. I've been in the industry for 10 years and I have seen professionals who couldn't produce dishes to the level of these."

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