A date with the food of five continents

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
School's gala dinners offer top-notch training and a great night out. Emma Seith reports

Guests in their finery mingle to the sound of bagpipes, waiters and waitresses weaving in and out with trays of sparkling wine.

There is an MSP, and local worthies and business people. Tonight they will dine on canapes inspired by the cuisine from five continents, followed by crab fromage blanc with smoked salmon, caviar and cucumber and citrus dressing. The courses to follow are equally enticing, and the mouth waters.

And so it should. Six executive head chefs have come together to create this feast from Ballathie House Hotel, Cargills Bistro, Murrayshall House Hotel, Huntingtower Hotel and MacGillivray Culinary Consultants. Meanwhile, Gleneagles has trained the front-of-house staff.

So where is this? And how does one get on the guest list? Probably the best way is to send your children to Blairgowrie High.

The school's home economics department started putting on gala dinners over a decade ago. They began in hotels but for the past five years have been held in a marquee.

But this is no backwards step. If the school were to hire these sumptuous surroundings, complete with dining room, separate bar and fully functioning kitchen, it would cost them in the region of Pounds 15,000.

Tickets sell for Pounds 40 a head and tonight 150 guests will be fed, watered and entertained by 50 senior pupils studying either Higher health and food technology or Intermediate 2 hospitality. The pupils act as car park attendants, welcome hosts, kitchen porters, chefs, waiters and waitresses, wine waiters and cloakroom assistants.

This is a community event. The marquee and interior furnishings are supplied by local firms Henderson Marquees Hire and Gordon's Caterer Hire. The aforementioned hotels and restaurants cover the cost of the food and work with the pupils to prepare it. Gleneagles trains pupils in the art of waiting on guests, giving the event the precision and finish it demands. Ewan MacGregor, who owns a PR business and whose son, now a chef, attended Blairgowrie High, ensures everything comes together.

Last year, through ticket sales, a raffle and the after-dinner auction, well over Pounds 5,000 was raised.

Lynn Smith, head of home economics, says: "We are trying to give the pupils the opportunity to see how you put on a very professional event at a level that some may never experience again."

It is a unique experience for the guests too. "When would you ever get another opportunity to have six top chefs under the one roof like this and have Gleneagles front of house?" she says.

Preparations begin months in advance. Every student has been put through a Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland food hygiene certificate to allow them to prepare the food. They have spent a day at Gleneagles to see the pros in action, and they join the chefs beforehand to prepare the food, spending the day with them in their kitchens.

The Gleneagles visit was an eye-opener for S5 pupil Alan Stirling. "You think it's just a fork and a knife on a table but it turns out there's much more to it than that," he says.

Two hours before guests arrive, Elaine Watson, food and beverage training manager at Gleneagles, is doing a final run-through with pupils. There is a nervous tension in the air. Pupils fidget and chat excitedly. Some blurt out questions in panicked tones about which glass is for red wine? Which guest to serve first? And with which hand?

Karen MacDonald, 16, says: "I've never done anything like this before. I'm scared of spilling stuff."

Sixteen-year-old Matthew Parker will be one of about a dozen pupils working in the kitchen and admits he too is nervous. Doubtless the thought that the guests will be watching his every move in the kitchen via a live link-up to the dining room is not helping.

Ms Smith sympathises. She was one of three "fun-loving foodies from Scotland" who took on celebrity chefs John Burton Race and James Tanner on the BBC 2 programme Step Up to the Plate in December, and won.

The food prepared at the various restaurants by pupils and chefs is arriving. Someone slices up the Dauphinoise potatoes. Other pupils are busy adding the finishing touches to the crab fromage blanc. Later, venison will be cooked to order.

Head chef tonight is Bill McNicoll from Huntingtower Hotel. As with many of the professionals helping out, this would usually be his day off, but he doesn't mind.

"The kids come in and show huge, huge excitement about coming into the kitchens. They all want to get in on the act," he says.

The night goes perfectly. And, by the end of the evening, three pupils have been offered full-time jobs.

"You can see as the night goes on, and they realise they can do it, that they actually visibly get taller," says Ms Smith.

The public will also have the opportunity to sample the delights prepared by Blairgowrie High pupils. The school now boasts a training kitchen and 40-seater restaurant, which Ms Smith hopes to open to the public. It is called "Aspirations". It figures.

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