It's hotting up in Stirling, where Forth Valley catering students are preparing for dinners with a difference - cooking daily for 200 pupils. Raymond Ross reports.It's not Hell's Kitchen. There's no celebrity chef mumping and grumping or shouting expletives. And it's not Jamie's School Dinners. There's no cheery chappie telling us how it should be done. But it is for real.
Come January, Forth Valley College students will be preparing school meals daily for 200 primary pupils at the new Raploch Community Campus in Stirling. The campus will bring together three primary schools in the area under one roof, together with a nursery school and special school, in addition to community offices, the Raploch learning centre (Edzone) and the library.
"For a college to deliver school meals like this is a unique enterprise in Scotland," says Eddie Campbell, Raploch project manager, as he shows the gleaming new state-of-the-art kitchens, complete with walk-in cool rooms, cold rooms, fridges and freezers, food preparation stations and delivery points.
"The students seem quite relaxed about it. They'll rise to the challenge - even the ones who don't know what they're capable of yet. This is a supportive environment," he says.
You could be forgiven for thinking you're in a top-class hotel or restaurant kitchen. There are already seven students hard at work, being put through their paces for D-Day (Dinner Day) on January 7. There's already an air of expectancy.
"Our students are initially recruited to the hospitality programme through the Careers Scotland Getting Ready for Work programme, before progressing to Skillseekers and an SVQ Level 2 in Food Preparation and Cooking," says Mr Campbell.
"By the end of January, we'll have 16 students. What we're offering them is as realistic an experience of catering as you can get.
"Under the head chef and sous-chef in the kitchen, and with the support of six tutors in our new classrooms, the students will be developing their skills and professionally delivering school dinners to all these pupils - and when the new Bistro is fully up and running in March, all staff and members of the public who work in, or use, the new centre will also be catered for by them," he says.
To date, on the public front, the students have been preparing trolleys and trays of fresh sandwiches, tea, coffee and cakes for other students and staff in the hairdressing and beauty therapy salons which Forth Valley College has already opened at the new centre, which is at the heart of the regeneration of Raploch.
But how will the students survive when they're thrown in at the deep end in January?
"It's not really a case of them being thrown in at the deep end," says Forth Valley's depute principal Ken Thomson.
"We've been preparing for this since 2004, when the new centre was given the go-ahead as a partnership between the college and Stirling Council.
"We began piloting the delivery of student meals in March at our Falkirk campus, where catering and hospitality students have a long experience of delivering quality meals to visitors, corporate guests and members of the public.
"They now deliver in-house lunches for their fellow students on a permanent basis in Falkirk and we're more than well equipped in staff and experience to manage school meals here," says Mr Thomson.
Head chef at the new centre, Ype Pieter van der Schaaf, knows the heat of the kitchen. His experience is in busy hotels and restaurants. "I'm very excited to be part of this unique enterprise," he says.
"The students are young, between 16 and 20. They are very good. They are learning fast and - most importantly - they all want to be professionals. From this course, we will be able to put them on placements in other professional kitchens, where they can progress to modern apprenticeships and careers in catering and hospitality."
The SVQ in Food Preparation and Cooking has also had to be tailored to the vigorous health requirements of the Government's Hungry for Success school meals programme.
"That has been a challenge we've had to meet," says Mr Campbell.
"But it's also given us an opportunity to develop our own healthy recipes with the students, which we can submit for approval.
"This whole enterprise is about active partnership. At the new centre, we are at the heart of the Raploch community in preparing and delivering meals, in training local young people, in serving pupils and public and in demonstrating to pupils and public alike a real career path in action.
"We are about offering opportunities in an industrial real-life situation. With our 'front of house' vocational training, including hairdressing and beauty therapy, and the dedicated college staff, we can offer something really different."
The pound;17 million Raploch Community Campus is a partnership between Forth Valley College and Stirling Council, as part of the council's public-private partnership strategy, and received a grant of pound;2 million from the Scottish Funding Council.
GETTING READY FOR WORK
Amy Smith, 16
"It's been great fun so far. I do feel a wee bit of the responsibility that's coming up in January, but I haven't lost any sleep over it. I'm quite confident.
"I've always wanted to do something like this. My dad's a chef, so it's maybe in my blood.
"I've really enjoyed the baking. That's something new to me. The baking facilities are great and it's a joy to work in such a brilliant kitchen."
David Coutts, 17
"I'm really looking forward to the rush in January, the rush of 200 pupils wanting to be fed, the adrenalin rush.
"I did some work experience in catering when I was at school and I really got into it. So when this opportunity came up, I knew I would just go for it.
"I really enjoy the butchering side, the preparation of the meat, portioning chickens, dicing beef, that sort of thing.
"I think we'll be just about perfect in January. In fact, I can't wait."