THERE MAY be more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes, but there's only one way to skin a rabbit, as award-winning hospitality student Vicky Haston has just been learning.
"I'll try anything if I'm shown how to prepare it properly," she says.
"Last week, I skinned and cooked a rabbit, a bit strong for my taste. I also plucked and prepared a pigeon, which was more to my liking. We're always learning new skills and trying new things here."
A second year student at Forth Valley College, Vicky is taking a National Qualification in Professional Food Preparation this year and hopes to take her Higher National Certificate next year. At the recent Scottish Culinary Championships, part of ScotHot 2007, she picked up two gold medals, one for her cold table preparation in the Menu of the Day class, and one in the Hot Kitchen as a member of the Scottish Junior Culinary Team. As part of the college team she also picked up a bronze in the UK Student Chefs Team Challenge.
In all, Forth Valley College students won nine medals at this prestigious event. "The results speak for themselves," says Scott Dougall, chef lecturer. "The students did really well. We can only teach them so far.
They have to commit in time and dedication for awards like these. We have no time to prepare for competitions in class, so students like Vicky had to work weekends and evenings to prepare."
George Scott, fellow chef lecturer, says: "ScotHot is a major culinary event with people like Martin Wishart, Andrew Fairlie of Gleneagles and Jeff Bland of the Balmoral Hotel in attendance. Our students had to compete with hundreds of competitors from America, Canada and Iceland, as well as from all over Britain.
"Our students are being recognised in the culinary world and they're making contacts which could prove vital to their careers."
Success at ScotHot is also putting Forth Valley's hospitality department on the catering industry map. Mr Scott and his colleagues have been restructuring the NQ course over the last two years, putting more emphasis on a wider range of practical skills.
"We teach them skills in butchery and fishmongery, for example, as well as baking, presentation skills and so forth. It's important they understand how food is sourced and prepared before it reaches the kitchen, as well as how to prepare it from scratch themselves," he says.
Hence Vicky's new-found en-thusiasm for skinning and plucking as well as for gutting fish and preparing shellfish. She's looking forward to a possible visit soon to a slaughterhouse as she embraces the department's philosophy of understanding how food reaches the kitchen. She's also contemplating trying her first fresh oyster.
"One of our chef lecturers admitted he was 35 before he tried a fresh oyster. I'm only 19, but I think you should give everything a go. Cooking's about trying new things. You can only learn by trial and error," she says.
What qualities does she think you need to be a good chef? "To take a course like this, I think you have to be passionate about food and about cooking.
You have to be a good team worker and you have to be prepared to work long and hard hours," she says.
George Scott agrees that ideally students should start a hospitality course with "passion and enthusiasm", but it's also possible to ignite that spark in them. "One of our students, for example, was slow at coming forward. She was capable, but not excited, until she discovered a flair for pastry. Now she's first in the queue for any pastry dish and that enthusiasm has spilled over into all her work."
Vicky's enthusiasm is rooted in her childhood. She was four years old when her grandmother began to teach her to bake. "Learning at home is important and there's not enough of that going on. When you look at obese children, you think that traditional meals like mince and tatties and stovies are much better for you than fast food.
"Unfortunately, though, I'm too busy to cook for Mum and Dad."
It's not the pressure of college, she says, but that, like a lot of her fellow students, she has a part-time job in a restaurant. "Most of us work in restaurants because it gives you practical and commercial experience,"
Practical experience is encouraged at the college, where students cook lunch twice a week for a paying public.
From Vicky's award-winning dishes at ScotHot, diners could start with a fois gras and free-range chicken terrine; followed by lamb cutlets with a mushroom and kidney tart, dauphinoise potatoes, and turnip and carrot in a red wine jus; and to finish, a chocolate tart with Bailey's ice cream accompanied by a kumquat and orange compote with vanilla bavaroise.
It does sound delicious. But it also sounds like hard work. "Every meal has its hard bits and its easy bits," says Vicky. "I should know, I've burned a few pans in my time."