Cool, calm and collected in the hotel run by students

16th July 2010 at 01:00
Chef Gordon is calling out his orders to the kitchen staff, but you won't hear the F word. With 40 guests to feed, the trainees at Burghfield House Hotel are in control.

A family party at a country house hotel in the Highlands - small children weave in and out between the guests who are sipping chilled champagne in an impressive reception hall.

A retired church minister and his wife are celebrating their golden wedding anniversary, with around 40 friends and family joining them for lunch.

Hotel staff move discreetly among them - refilling glasses and smiling - smart and professional in crisp white shirts with black trousers and waistcoats.

It is an unremarkable scene, a happy summer occasion with friends and family reunited. But this is no ordinary hotel - it is run mainly by students who, just months ago, were learning how to set these tables.

Burghfield House Hotel in Dornoch is a training hotel for hospitality and tourism students, run by North Highland College. It has six bedrooms and a 30-seat restaurant plus a lounge accommodating 40 diners.

Students who work here study for Scottish Vocational Qualifications at levels 1-3 in professional cookery and hospitality "multi-skilled", learning to become chefs or to manage front-of-house services under the direction of key professionals. They can also continue to Higher National Certificate studies and there are plans to introduce a degree course in 2011 with North Highland as the lead college.

Their transformation is remarkable. Nine months ago, shortly before the hotel opened, this was a shy group of typical teenagers with holes in their jeans, pink hair and nose studs. Today, they move with self-assured smiles, sober suited with white-gloved hands carrying trays of glasses aloft with confidence.

The hotel atmosphere is warm, friendly and relaxed. Naturally there are glitches, but the guests are oblivious. The church minister would approve - there are no angry F words in this kitchen.

It takes a certain kind of personality to run an operation like this with a team of learners - Gordon Ramsays need not apply. The hotel manager John Simpson, who trains these students, is a former North Highland College student who has worked at Scotland's most exclusive hotels.

John is no nippy sweetie - he's pleasant and smiling and enjoys his work. The students are comfortable with him and appear happy and relaxed, which is a bonus for the guests.

Along the corridor in a state-of-the-art new kitchen, award-winning head chef Gordon Smillie is preparing for service, assisted by the breakfast chef and a team of students. Gordon joined the professionals here in March from Creggans Inn in Argyll. Chef Alexander Kydd, one of the lecturing team, works part-time at nearby Skibo Castle.

The hotel had its first wedding here two weeks ago and today's celebration lunch is a fresh challenge. "It can be very difficult: things like today you have to plan well in advance," says Gordon, one eye on the team as they work away beside him.

"Right, check on seven scallops, one duck, one chilled melon balls - one of the scallops no black pudding," he calls out. "Followed by six beef (one small) and three halibut."

It is very similar to a celebrity chef TV show - but without the mad eyes and crescendo of hysteria.

As the first orders come in, it is clear preparation pays off. Each person has a task, laying out scallops, drizzling sauces and wiping plates before John and the front-of-house team carry plates to the tables.

Eighteen-year old Daniel Smith is a former Tain Royal Academy pupil studying professional cookery level 2, who wants to be an army chef. "I'd get to travel the world as well - that's what made me want to do it," he smiles. "We were front-of-house at the start, so we get used to that and the kitchen. At the very start, we only had a few days training before Alex Salmond visited, but it went well," he says.

Nearby, another student, Amy Henderson, 18, is putting the finishing touches to today's dessert - glazed lemon tart with passion fruit cream and millefeuilles of Halkirk berries with raspberry sorbet.

"The pastry section is my favourite. It's really creative and, presentation-wise, there's so much scope to do something," says Amy, who prepared the pastry cases last night. They look flawless.

"It's very similar to shortbread, which means we can get it quite thin, but it's terribly breakable so you have to be really careful when you are putting it in the case," says Amy, who left Thurso High at Christmas and started here in April.

The hotel's next few months are going to be busy and the challenge will be to increase profitability.

"It's not doing as well as it needs to," says Anne Frew, the college's section leader for hospitality, hair and beauty. "We're moving in the right direction though," she adds.

Most of the 30 hospitality and tourism students have gone on summer placements, leaving just 11 students here, working alongside a skeleton professional staff. Six students are paid as modern apprentices; five are on more modest bursaries.

"We are in the unfortunate position of having lots of staff in the winter and not so many customers, and more customers in the summer and not so many staff, so we need to do something about that," says Mrs Frew.

Last week, the hotel had a surprise visit from VisitScotland and was awarded three stars - the highest rating possible with limited food service and six rooms. The restaurant is open Thursday to Sunday for lunches and dinner, and for afternoon tea at other times.

Sixteen-year-old student Nicole Fraser is working front-of-house and looking apprehensive: "I just started a couple of days ago," she says shyly. Beside her is Ella Wingent, 19, who left Dornoch Academy last summer and is on a modern apprenticeship as a general assistant.

"The `modern apprentice' means as well as being a student here, we also get paid a small wage of about pound;4 an hour - we get paid 35 hours a week," says Kenny Mackay, a chatty 19-year-old, who is serving wine to guests.

"Everyone who comes through the door is always interested in the hotel. One of the key features is the students - the selling point that everyone loves," says Kenny, who is studying professional cookery, level 2.

Newspaper magnate Viscount Rothermere built the house with its turret and sea views as a private home in 1900. It was run as a successful hotel for many years and local people are interested in seeing the renovations.

Further work on the six-acre site will develop a base for a history centre for the University of the Highlands and Islands and new student residences. The European Regional Development Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are among contributors to the pound;7 million programme.

There are ambitious plans for residential cookery courses and a busy calendar of dining evenings to attract customers. But, for the moment, the priority is to get lunch on the table for today's guests.

"I am loving it here. We have great training and great staff. All the tutors, especially John, are amazing - without them we wouldn't be as good as we are," says Kenny.

Their boss is pleased too: "They've come on leaps and bounds. I'm proud of them all," says John Simpson.

Rosie Macphee, 37, and her daughter Emma Welford, 19, are on the modern apprentice programme. Today they are serving lunches and helping less- experienced students.

Rosie completed her multiskilled front-of-house training level 2 and is now studying housekeeping level 2. As a mature student she is a vocal ambassador for further education and for this business.

"It's like leaving a family and coming to a family, that's what it feels like in the morning," she smiles, as she smoothes out the bedding in one of the rooms upstairs.

Back downstairs and chef Gordon has sent a portion of citrus baked halibut with mussel broth to sample. The fish is cooked to perfection and it tastes wonderful - it's the kind of food that stops conversation and makes you wonder when you last tasted anything so good.

Amy's lemon tart is of the same mark - a fine sliver of pastry with a slight crunch and a sharp lemon filling. The passion fruit cream is a great accompaniment to it and Amy has given away its secret - whipping cream, icing sugar and passion fruit.

The guests give the food rave reviews too. David Cumming, who is celebrating his golden wedding anniversary, is delighted with everything. "It's been a very happy experience. They've been terribly good - the quality of the food is excellent, the service excellent - what more could you say?"

Today has been a nostalgic experience for retired dentist Maggie Macleod- Basu, from Dornoch, who played in this house as a child in the 1940s when it was a family-run hotel.

"I think this is the best thing that's happened to the town. Dornoch needs waking up and this has done it."

John Simpson hopes his students will be ambassadors for excellence in hospitality. "We want to raise the standards, so students are going out and improving the standards throughout Scotland and farther afield."

Some, like 19-year-old Emma Welford, are already nurturing ambitious plans: "Hopefully by the time I am 35, I'll be running my own hotel," she smiles.

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