Into the fire
Last January Luke Robinson could hardly have imagined what he would be doing 12 months on. "We've just been having a demonstration from Jamie," he says. "On fish. How to fillet properly and all that." Luke rocks back on a chair in his white tunic and checked trousers. "Yeah, it was good. He's a good teacher. Gives you a lot of knowledge."
"Jamie" is Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef, TV personality and founder of Fifteen, the London restaurant he set up in 2002 while training 15 disadvantaged young people to be chefs, a traumatic journey witnessed by millions on the Channel 4 show Jamie's Kitchen. While his TV career has moved on to school dinners, supermarket ads and Italian road trips, Oliver's on-screen experiment has quietly developed into a not-for-profit social enterprise called the Fifteen Foundation, catering to the needs and ambitions of underprivileged young people.
Luke is one of the current crop of trainees who started in March 2005. Now 21, he left school in Sheffield at 16 with no qualifications and little going for him other than a love of food. "At first I worked in kitchens but it didn't work out," he says. "Then I drifted to London, where I became homeless for a couple of years. I knew about Fifteen from TV, but I never thought I'd get in."
Luke is typical of the trainees taken on every year; many are homeless, most are unemployed, some have been in prison or in trouble with the police, others are struggling with drug and alcohol problems. Almost all "failed" at school. Oliver first had the idea to use food to help troubled youngsters when a friend who worked with excluded young people told him how cooking caught their imaginations.
"I felt I could relate to that because I wasn't great at school, but in the kitchen I came alive," says Oliver. "I thought then how fantastic it would be if there was some kind of charity that could help train youngsters who wouldn't otherwise get the chance, and give them a kick-start in the restaurant business."
So far, the foundation has kick-started three cohorts of graduates from its intensive 18-month programme and is halfway through preparing a fourth.
Thirty-seven former trainees are working in the food and hospitality industry, some in top restaurants around the world, such as Chez Pannise in San Francisco.
Fifteen, now one of the most highly regarded restaurants in London, is spreading its socially conscious ethos to new franchises here and abroad.
Fifteen Amsterdam opened in December 2004, restaurants in Cornwall and Melbourne will open in the summer, and there are plans for vineyards in South Africa and Australia. By any measure, Oliver's high-risk venture has been a success.
But creating new cooks and opening restaurants is only part of the organisation's drive. "Fifteen is so much more than a chef training project," says Tony Elvin, the foundation's head of training. "Food and cooking are the means to an end; the real purpose is personal transformation for each young person."
Mr Elvin is not a chef, and not even particularly interested in food; his background is in youth work. "My thing is the young people come first, the food second," he says. "If you give young people something interesting to do it will stimulate them.
"Jamie knew that food saved him, and because he's so passionate about it and enjoys what he's doing so much it's infectious. But when the Jamie effect wears off, the reality is we're working with young people who have messed up and want a second chance. It's not an easy ride, but it's exciting."
The foundation recruits 20 16 to 24-year-olds each year. They can't be in full-time education, employment or training; must live close enough to the restaurant near Old Street, Islington, to get home at night; and they must have a passion for food and a hunger to survive in a harsh industry. The training starts with three months at Lewisham college in south London studying for an NVQ in food and catering, followed by six weeks' work experience at a top restaurant such as The Ivy or Le Gavroche. The next 12 months are spent at Fifteen, doing five eight-hour shifts a week and learning on the job from the restaurant's 15 full-time chefs.
"For some this is the first real work they've ever done," says Alison Noor, the foundation's training and development chef. "It's hard work and very physical. On their first day in the kitchen, after a couple of hours they're all complaining."
For most, though, the hard part is not the physical strain, but the discipline required in a notoriously tough working environment. "In many ways, a restaurant kitchen is the last place you should think about putting vulnerable young people," says Tony Elvin. "It can get a bit on a knife edge sometimes." For troubled teenagers the commitment alone is a burden, and not all of them last the course. The pass rate is going up, however, to 75 per cent in 2005, from half in 2003.
Mr Elvin's job is to provide the kind of day-to-day support they wouldn't get in a normal workplace; helping them to find housing, deal with the welfare system, and cope with bad relationships or substance abuse. "When employees don't come up to the mark they get sacked," he says. "We can't do that. My role is to find out why they are underperforming, then find creative ways to keep them engaged."
It costs the foundation around pound;20,000 a year to train each youngster, paid for out of the restaurant profits and money raised from charitable trusts, sponsors (Barclays paid for the IT suite, for example), and corporate functions. The trainees get a pound;100 a week allowance and the best practical experience they could ask for; they go on sourcing trips to food producers, including three days in Italy with Oliver.
"You should see them, in their hoodies in the middle of Tuscany, drinking the finest wine and talking about the tannins and the nose," says Mr Elvin.
"People in the industry can't believe they've only been learning for a year and a half because their food knowledge is so good."
Although the course at Lewisham college is important, the project's success stems partly from how different it is from formal education. The trainees are assessed for attendance, skills, effort and attitude, rather than "hard targets and measurements". "It's not about how fast they can chop, but the distance travelled," says Mr Elvin. "Who they were, where they started, and how much they've put in."
For some the journey means leaving behind old friends and influences; literally starting a new life. Nine months into his training, 20-year-old Daniel Tomaselli is already aware of how far he's come. "I was a little shit at school; messed about, didn't go in," he says. "When I left I thought, 'What am I going to do now?' I didn't find nothing that worked until now. My dream was just what the next day was gonna bring."
Now, he dreams of cooking in Italy and writing a book; maybe opening his own place. Like Jamie. "I used to act like a child," he says. "Even at 17, 18. But now I'm more grown up. I want my future sorted."
"That's the thing here," says Tony Elvin. "The expectation is high. We are talking about people who supposedly can't do much, and we are taking them to a level where they can exist in high-pressure situations throughout the world."