The foodstuff of dreams

30th January 2004 at 00:00
The centre of catering excellence that inspired Channel 4's 'Jamie's Kitchen ' is giving disadvantaged young people a taste of success, writes Joe Clancy

The heat is most definitely on in the kitchen as a group of students busily peel, slice and dice the vegetables and prepare the sauces for the day's lunches.

In the restaurant area an assessor watches as a young woman studying for her NVQ level 1 in food preparation steams and cleans the glasses and cutlery.

It's just another day in the life of Dr B's restaurant and coffee shop, a project backed by the charity Barnado's in which 30 "hard to reach" young people are being trained for careers in the hospitality industry.

The fact that one student who suffers from severe epilepsy is having a bit of a crisis and needs emotional support does not make the day particularly unusual.

Nor does the fact that the inspectors are in on this day - to examine in detail the practices and procedures and the quality of the teaching and learning.

Dr B's, in its 18 years of existence in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has learnt to take the frequent inspections from awarding bodies and the Adult Learning Inspectorate in its stride.

Once you have been awarded a grade one "excellent" rating by ALI - it is one of only two trainers in the hospitality industry to achieve this - perhaps inspections hold fewer terrors.

But what this training establishment is still coming to terms with is the sudden explosion of interest from the press since Channel 4's Jamie's Kitchen series tried to emulate its formula.

The staff and students are having to get used to being interviewed and having their pictures taken as local, regional and national newspapers, television and radio queue up to make the comparison.

Any comparison will show Dr B's in a favourable light. In Jamie's Kitchen, nine of the first 15 disadvantaged youngsters, who were hand-picked by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, have stayed the course and are still in employment with him.

"Our success rate is running between 80 and 85 per cent in terms of people who start the course and end up in sustained full-time employment, having obtained a qualification," says Chris Bean, Dr B's service manager.

"Some of our ex-students are sous chefs in four-star hotels, another is a front-of-house waitress at a major hotel. The ALI inspection particularly praised our success rate in securing employment for our students. We try to provide the training that meets the skills gap that the industry is feeding back to us. It is geared up to trying to plug that gap."

Nobody can deny the toughness of Jamie Oliver's task in aiming to give a chance to disadvantaged youngsters, but Dr B's challenge is tougher still.

It has an "open door" policy, but most of its trainees have been born with a disadvantage or have suffered medical trauma. Several students have Down's syndrome or epilepsy, and 90 per cent have basic skills needs.

Others are young people who have fallen out of the system through school exclusions, or who have been in the care of social services. But that does not prevent the training establishment from taking on some ambitious projects, such as providing afternoon tea for 2,000 people at a function at Lambeth Palace, at which all the jams, scones and cream were home-made by the students.

Outside catering projects are just part of the training programme. Dr B's also runs a seven-days-a-week restaurant and coffee shop operation, and students will provide the catering for the Barnado's hospitality marquee at next year's London marathon.

"It helps to generate interest in our project when we expose our young people to the public on outside catering projects," says Mr Bean.

"As a result we are getting referrals from all over the country. Barnado's will have to give careful consideration to an expansion programme. We would like to see Dr B's springing up all over the country."

Michael Hill, the employment support worker who helps to organise work-placement opportunities for the students in the scheme, says: "We need to stretch them as far as we can without setting them up to fail.

"A lot of employers have a set view of a young person with a learning disability - and can be too sympathetic. That's why we encourage them to come in to see what they can do here.

"Our students are not incapable of pulling a fast one and doing as little work as possible if they can get away with it.

"The industry they are being trained for is very hard. The hours are long, it is not very well paid, and there tends to be a high turnover of staff.

"But with our young people, once they get a job where they feel secure, happy and valued, they will stay. That's why we have a good relationship with employers."

Nadine Good, who heads the Dr B's project, adds: "We don't want customers to come here because they feel sorry for us. They come because they are getting quality food at a very reasonable price.

"We don't coach or guide our customers on how to deal with our trainees.

They are paying hard-earned money and they expect good food and good service and we expect our people to deliver."

The choice of menus in the 36-cover restaurant is dictated by the study needs of the students.

Chef Darrell Broadbent says: "If there is a level 2 student who needs to practise shellfish preparation, then we may put lobster on the menu to accommodate his training needs.

"If there is a student who needs to be assessed on preparing vegetables we may have minestrone soup. We use fresh produce delivered every day by local suppliers and everything is made by hand, even the chutneys.

"It takes longer to get them up to the standard but once they are there, their enthusiasm takes over. These young people come here thinking they will never be able to do anything with their lives, but once they find that they can, you can't stop them."

And the inspector's verdict. Mike Hewitt, external verifier for the Hospitality Awarding Body, concludes: "The quality of what they produce matches most mainstream food outlets and surpasses many."

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