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Getting a taste for the culunary arts

The young folk of Lochgelly are flocking to the local school's Young Chef Club. Eleanor Caldwell went to meet them

Lochgelly's unfortunate claim to fame in Scottish education has always been the production of foot-long strips of hard leather to be wielded against the unruly. Now a refreshing new gourmet image has replaced this in the form of a Young Chef Club at the town's high school.

Conscious of the continuing shortage of young people going into skilled work in the tourism industry, the club was established four years ago and has expanded to include a further three Fife schools: Viewforth High, Kirkland High and Glenrothes High. More than 150 pupils of all ages have taken part.

On a wet Wednesday afternoon after school, 15 S1 and S2 pupils don aprons and chefs' hats, ready to find out the recipe of the day. Lecturer chef George Smith from Glenrothes College gathers the trainee chefs round a work top, runs a rapid check on pupils' jewellery and is "chuffed to bits" that they have removed it all. Groans of disgust greet his description of using cocktail sticks to pick flour out of rings.

On to cooking and today's speciality is frangipan tartlets. After setting ovens, pupils are reminded how to roll pastry effectively. Due to the limited time of an hour and a half, Mr Smith has brought his own prepared pastry and frangipan mixtures from the college. The youngsters are clearly taken with his professional style of sprinkling flour evenly from a height, and fire rapid questions at him about rolling techniques, the value of non-stick moulds and problems with over-use of flour.

At all times pupils address Mr Smith deferentially as "chef" and are pleased in turn to be similarly addressed. "Now chefs, remember to watch your time".

As the young chefs start working on their own, attention has to be paid to the smallest of details. After rolling and forming the pastry into moulds, excess flour is first scraped, then wiped from work surfaces.

"Remember flour and water on a surface just makes goo," George Smith comments. Adding frangipan mixture to pastry-lined moulds, the young chefs let them drop, as instructed - "just a controlled bang" - to let the mixture settle evenly.

Pupils are taking great care with quantities. One girl explains: "If you put in too much, it'll rise too high and spoil the appearance". Another is concerned about over-rolling her pastry, "even though it doesn't quitefit the wee mould". Selecting apricots or almonds to finish them off, they are instructed to get their tartlets into the oven and, with quickening pace reminiscent of a hotel kitchen, gather round to discuss the final presentation.

The young chefs observe as Mr Smith presents the best way of swirling raspberry coulis onto a plate. Then with his "favourite spoon which has been with me for 13 years", he delights them with the formation of decorative "quenelles" and "rochers" from Chantilly cream. Enthusiasm mounts as the pupils place beautiful swirls of coulis and well-formed rochers of cream around their own tartlets.

"Chef, is that not just brilliant?" asks S2 pupil Sam Courts. Euan Johnstone, also in S2, recalls making wild mushroom tartlets at an earlier class.

The principal teacher of home economics, Jill Steven, who assists George Smith at the club, says it has given pupils the chance to see and taste unusual foods, such as six different varieties of wild mushrooms. Tasting cr me Chantilly, one girl likes the extra sweetness and vanilla flavour, but thinks Mr Smith's suggestion of a savoury version with lemon juice and salt would be "yucky".

Through last year's club a number of S4 pupils gained an Elementary Food Hygiene Certificate, which some have since taken for display in places of work such as delicatessen counters and fish and chip shops, says Ms Steven. One of the original club members has gone on to become a successful chef and is now working abroad.

This year's cohort enjoy making their frangipan tartlets, though they are harder work than the previous week's efforts. "There's not much work in chocolate mousse," explains one girl.

Reactions to the special dishes at home have been generally very positive. S1 pupil Lee Hill's father has been a chef and now wants to watch Lee in the kitchen at home when he tries his hand at cooking. This is Lee's second session at the club but he has developed a taste for more. S2 pupil Sam Courts particularly enjoyed making a fish dish, even though he doesn't like eating fish.

The chef himself enjoys teaching the younger children. "I get a real buzz out of their enthusiasm and just the fact that they choose to come here after a whole day at school," he says. "It's great if we can establish the kids' pride in their cookery and they can take that forward into the industry."

The club continues this month for S3 and S4 pupils.

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