Alchemy in the kitchen leaves pupils with a lasting taste for hospitality

11th December 2009 at 00:00
So successful is the Culinary Excellence programme in Glasgow, top restaurateurs are queuing up to take part

Gulping down raw oysters at 6am can't be near the top of teenagers' must-do experiences - unless they are taking part in Glasgow's long- running Culinary Excellence programme, in which case they're well used to stepping outside their comfort zones.

The programme, which has been running for 14 years, allows S5 and S6 home economics students - all taking Intermediate 2 hospitality - to test their skills in the real world of work. This year, 10 schools and 140 pupils are participating. Each school works with one of the top hotels or restaurants in Glasgow over 12 weekly sessions. The final task is to organise a sophisticated meal for invited guests.

Eastbank Academy serves lunch to 24 at the City Inn, overlooking the "squinty bridge" on the Clyde.

The five pupils working front-of-house are better than the waiters in many vaunted restaurants: friendly, but not overbearing; industrious, but not distractingly so.

Five classmates behind the scenes reach equally exacting standards. A peek into the kitchen reveals rows of plates, each with four dabs of oyster sauce painstakingly placed on the exact same spots, forming a crescent around a tart mango salsa and crispy duck spring rolls.

The main course, of Loch Duart salmon, lies on a haddock risotto whose pungent smokiness is balanced by sweet nuggets of Jerusalem artichoke. Dessert is unctuous chocolate coffee mousse sprinkled with shards of brittle white chocolate.

Some members of the team can scarcely believe their own progress. Without on-the-job training, Amy Dempster, 16, says she would have been "a disaster - I wouldn't know where to start".

Amy wants to be a midwife, but talks at a million miles an hour about how much the "absolutely brilliant" programme has boosted her all-round confidence.

Danielle Weir, 15, who is working in the kitchen, raises her eyebrows in wonderment at the alchemy of making chocolate mousse. She has loved her time at the City Inn because, unlike a lot of learning, "you're not just standing about".

Robert Robertson, 16, already has a part-time job at McDonalds, but the City Inn has been more demanding - because you can't serve everything on one tray. He is a "different person" after learning how to deal with the whims of the public, he says: "I feel a lot more confident and know I can relax more around customers."

Programme development officer Karen Bryce estimates that a very high proportion, at least 60 per cent of young people who complete Culinary Excellence, go into the hospitality industry. Attainment in the practical exam also increases. "The experience helps the young people focus a bit more on whether hospitality is something they'd like to get into," she says. "It doesn't glamorise the job - they certainly go in with eyes open."

Mrs Bryce, who juggles her part-time role with the principal hospitality teacher's job at Lochend Community High in Easterhouse, frequently bumps into restaurant staff who once took part in the programme. The multiple award-winning Hotel du Vin signed up last year after management learned their receptionist was a product of Culinary Excellence.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest this year's participants will excel. Martin Wishart, of the Michelin-starred restaurant in Edinburgh, ate at Cleveden Secondary's dinner for 60 at Hotel du Vin. He was so impressed, his cookery school will close for a day to give private tuition to all eight pupils.

There are a lot of rough edges to be smoothed off when the 12-week course begins. The biggest hurdle, says Mrs Bryce, is ensuring that white shirt and ties are worn in the conventional manner - anathema to teenagers with a casual interpretation of school uniform. One girl refused to take her jumper off because she had a pink bra under her shirt. So a new rule on the ever-evolving checklist banned coloured bras.

"That's them learning," Mrs Bryce says. "If they had a job and turned up dressed like that, it wouldn't be acceptable."

Culinary Excellence does not take place entirely in hotels and restaurants. Pupils at Mrs Bryce's school, who work at Chardon d'Or Restaurant with Brian Maule, got up at 4.30am to see Glasgow's huge Blochairn market. They impressed with their willingness to try raw oysters on an empty stomach, but the visit also drove home messages about sustainability, carbon footprints, and why some foods cost far more than others.

All pupils are invited by Lord Provost Bob Winter to take on the daunting task of serving hundreds of covers at special senior citizens' Christmas lunches in the City Chambers. Culinary Excellence concludes early in the new year with half-day visits to Gleneagles Hotel, where pupils meet successful young staff and learn about their career paths.

The project this year came well under budget, using pound;21,000 out of its pound;25,000 from the city council to pay for food, uniform, graphics and cover for Mrs Bryce's classes. And it is the biggest yet. Hotels and restaurants are contacting Mrs Bryce to get involved (she used to have to contact them), and four more will participate next year, having been impressed with the training opportunities for their staff and the chance to recruit enthusiastic school-leavers. Schools, too, are clamouring to get in, as "it ticks so many boxes in Curriculum for Excellence".

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