Dinner, bed and breakfast, anyone?

30th October 2009 at 00:00
Not many colleges have a full-scale hotel for training hospitality and tourism students. North Highland does

It has everything you would want in an upmarket Scottish country house hotel - a big turret, not too much tartan, a bedroom three times the size of the one at home and someone else making the tea.

North Highland College staff and students are bustling around today, adding the final touches to an ambitious renovation project at Burghfield House in Dornoch, originally built as a private home by newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere in 1900.

The property was run as a successful hotel for many years and is about to re-open as a training hotel for hospitality and tourism. Students will get hands-on experience in housekeeping, reception services, room booking, food preparation and restaurant and bar service.

When Burghfield House came on the market, college principal Rosemary Thompson spotted its potential - once complete, the six-acre site will include a base for the UHI Centre for History and new student residences.

The house needed extensive work, and funding for the pound;7 million project came from a range of sources, including the European Regional Development Fund and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Work on the hotel has restored elegant reception and public areas, now decorated in contemporary colours with a nod to tartan in the soft furnishings. As well as cleaning and preparing the six ensuite bedrooms, students will serve lunches, afternoon teas and evening meals.

For youngsters like 16-year-old Lauren Lynch, this is going to be a steep learning curve. Until now, she has only served refreshments at a charity car boot sale. But in less than a month, she'll have the white gloves on to serve diners at what is hoped will become one of the finest hotels in the Highlands.

Lauren left Tain Royal Academy before the summer and started college just a week ago. But the students are rising to the challenge and will be supported by a small hotel staff, as well as the college's own chef lecturers.

"It's really nice," she says, admiring the wood-panelled dining room, flooded with light from surrounding windows. "I can't stack the plates yet, though," she says, glancing at the table set for students to role- play serving scenarios.

Hotel manager John Simpson is teaching them how to glide in and out of the dining room, balancing plates and popping champagne corks with the required discretion. He wants to create a wow factor here, but he also wants guests to feel comfortable.

"It's fantastic. I've been looking for something like this to happen because I think the standards of training, especially front of house, need to be improved and have gone downhill in the past 15 years in the industry - in the Highlands and all over the UK," he says.

Mr Simpson is a former student of this college, who has worked at some of the Highlands' most exclusive establishments. He has been employed to run the commercial side of this operation with seven new staff - including three modern apprentices who will also receive training.

Anne Frew, the college's section leader for hospitality, hair and beauty, will supervise education. There are 28 students doing SVQ levels 1-3 with options to study professional cookery or multi-skills training for front of house managers and staff.

"There is a lot of personal presentation, social skills and customer care," says Mrs Frew. "The students will attend classes and then will be on a rota in the hotel, doing an appropriate job for their course, under the supervision of John and his staff."

The students are listening attentively to Mr Simpson - typical teenagers, with pink hair, holes in their jeans and diamond-studded noses. But when the guests arrive, the white gloves will worn - and they will wear chefs' whites or black and white for front of house.

"We were based in Ross House in Dornoch and had outgrown existing facilities," says Mrs Frew. The college has its own training restaurant, Flagstones, at the campus in Thurso.

"SVQs are assessed in a realistic working environment, so most colleges will have a training restaurant - some might do rooms but not many have a full-scale hotel.

"Residences would be great, because that would allow us to pull from a larger area. At the moment, because there aren't residences, we are restricted to people who live locally," she says.

In its heyday, Burghfield was a highly successful hotel and very popular. "We have had loads of people come up, just because they have had such an affection for the place, to look around and see what we've done."

When they visit, guests can choose from a menu which concentrates on locally-sourced produce, including vegetables, game and seafood. The food will be prepared by students supervised by Alexander Kydd, their chef lecturer who also works part-time at the exclusive Skibo Castle, a few miles away.

"Lots of chefs there are interested in coming in and doing talks. We're hoping maybe in the first year to gain a rosette, so we've really got to push the boundaries," says Mr Kidd, who is in charge of the hotel's culinary operations.

In partnership with the UHI Millennium Institute, there are plans for a degree course in hospitality and tourism and it is hoped residential cookery courses can be run during the summer months - and a course in horticulture, which will provide a well-stocked kitchen garden for the hotel.

"Once we get the gardens up and running, we will have our own herbs and fruit and vegetables," he adds.

"We are hoping to do quite a lot of quirky dishes where we are pushing the boundaries and the students are doing more modern food, even touching on what they do in Michelin restaurants at the moment."

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