Hotel know-how gives young chefs bite

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
A unique partnership between a college and the Hilton chain lets budding cooks gain vital experience in a busy kitchen

You're running a busy hotel kitchen and two students apply for a vacancy. It's an immediate start. You have a function coming up, a plated banquet with 200 covers. You need someone who can produce the requisite number of desserts - say, profiteroles.

One student has in-college experience, producing six or 12 portions on demand, the other has spent one day a week for 30 weeks in a large hotel kitchen and, as part of a small team, has produced up to 350 such portions - and has done this six or seven times.

Which of the two students you employ is what is called in common parlance these days a "no brainer".

NQ Level 2 students in hospitality and professional cookery at Dundee College are in this fortunate position, thanks to the college's Classroom to Industry programme and its partnership with the city's Hilton Hotel.

The partnership, which has been running for seven years, enables 16 students to spend every Friday in the hotel kitchen, working from 9am to 3pm helping four professional chefs with the last of the breakfasts, all the lunches and an hour of dinner prep to finish.

"They are regularly helping to prepare food for up to 200 people in a real work situation," says senior chef lecturer Russell Walker.

"They will mostly get jobs because their work experience has a credibility which gives them a `can-do' attitude. They learn speed and they work to deadline. They grow in skill, experience and confidence - and their communication skills improve as they learn professional manners."

The partnership is strengthened by the fact that the Hilton's executive head chef, David Proctor, is also a part-time lecturer at the college. "The students get the idea of a busy service - a high-pressure situation - pretty quickly," he says.

"On the first Friday, at the start of the year, they're pretty taken aback by the demand for 200 or 300 portions, even though they're working together in small rotated teams. But come Christmas, it's quite simply `Yes, Chef' and they produce."

Professional cookery is growing in popularity among young people, partly because TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay have made it "cool"; but that doesn't mean every student can cut the mustard.

"About half the students I deal with come in specifically wanting to be chefs - and there's a definite television influence here," Mr Proctor says. "The other half don't necessarily know what part of the industry they want to work in, but they do know that in hospitality there are always jobs."

The heat of the kitchen and the anti-social hours do take their toll. But Mr Proctor reminds his students that once they reach a certain level, they can expect a healthy wage, good opportunities around the world and job satisfaction that can't be beaten when people appreciate their cooking.

There are some 220 hospitality students at the college, from school-link pupils to HND students, and most who want to progress into the industry will find jobs, not least because of their real work experience.

Of the 15 students on last year's Classroom to Industry programme, 10 are now chefs. Mr Proctor has employed two of them himself and one is already "stepping up" to a London hotel with the Hilton organisation.

"It's a win-win situation for the students, the college and the hotel," he says.

Both Mr Proctor and Mr Walker believe the college-hotel partnership is "pretty unique" in Scotland in the length, regularity and the continuity of the work experience it offers.

"You can teach anyone to cook - anyone within reason, that is," says Mr Proctor. "In college, you can teach correct methods. But what you can't give the students is bulk and speed. That's where the hotel comes in, and it's there that the students really learn you're only as good as your last meal."


"The best thing about the hotel work is knowing that you can produce something which paying customers will enjoy," says Sinead Campbell, a hospitality NQ Level 2 student.

"I can still remember the compliments I got for the first dish I made - polenta and lentil cakes.

"I think my proudest moment was when four of us had to produce 300 starters of haggis, neeps and tatties, 400 Yorkshire puddings and 400 shortbread biscuits. It's great knowing you've achieved something like this and that you can work together as a team.

"We're all treated equally and it's like being part of a family, though I think we are quite competitive with each other - only no one admits this!

"I like working under my own initiative and I like the pressure of a real kitchen. I believe pressure produces good food.

"I hate it if I burn food or if I cut myself, and I really hate not getting food plated up on time.

"It's been a much better experience than I thought it would be. In fact, I've loved it.

"It's given me a real understanding of health and safety and of food hygiene. It's opened my eyes to what needs to be done. And I find I'm much more aware - and more critical - if I eat out somewhere.

"I want to do Level 3 hospitality next year, and eventually to run my own kitchen - or hotel."

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