Indian cookery course is the spice of life
Clutching his plastic container of chicken, the principal of Banff and Buchan College can't wait to get his coat off and get into the kitchen.
He is half an hour early for his class and he is not the first; already there are people unloading ingredients of herbs and spices and slicing onions.
This is the third week of a new Indian cookery course at Banff and Buchan College in Fraserburgh and the teacher is a former London investment banker, Naida Ali.
Naida learnt how to cook from her mother and has been perfecting her skills since she was a young girl. She's here to teach authentic Indian cooking to this class and tonight the menu is chicken biryani and pakora.
The idea is the result of an approach to the college by Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond, who is the local MP. He raised concerns of an Indian restaurant owner in Aberdeenshire who was having problems recruiting chefs.
"With the changes to the UK Border Agency rules, they now have real difficulty bringing chefs in from the Indian sub-continent. This is leading to quite a shortage," explains college principal Bob Sinclair, as his classmates begin blending their spices. "We were asked if we could help resolve the issue and we came up with a three-pronged strategy," he says.
"One was a relatively fun evening class in authentic Indian cookery, so we could start to develop our staff skills and give the new members of staff an opportunity to develop their teaching skills in a non-vocational context," says Mr Sinclair.
He has done courses at the college in the past - several in computing and fitness. "It's not unusual for the principal to be doing a course - I'm committed to lifelong learning," he says enthusiastically.
He was one of the first to sign up for this course and tonight the 12 students appear to be having a marvellous time. This is no Hell's Kitchen: they are all chatting happily with not even a whisper of the "F word".
The students include one or two in their twenties and thirties, right through to retired learners in their sixties. There is a farmer and a retired fish merchant, an insurance broker and another few college staff. What they have in common is that they love Indian food and enjoy cooking.
To keep this popular Indian cuisine alive in the north east, the college has also been discussing plans for an Indian cookery version of the Modern Apprenticeship Level 3 with Skills Development Scotland and a group of Indian restaurateurs.
Already 12 restaurants across the region have said they would be willing to take students on placements.
"Then if there is sufficient demand, we would look at the potential of getting together with a consortium of other interested parties and putting together a formal qualification in Indian cookery and going to the Scottish Qualifications Authority to see if this is something they would be interested in validating," says Mr Sinclair.
"As far as I know, it's a first in Scotland. There have probably been other evening classes offered in Indian cookery, but not as a strategy going forward to produce the next generation of Indian chefs."
At a hob opposite, farmer John Lamont has his chicken bubbling away nicely in a richly-flavoured sauce, blended from tomatoes and a long shopping list of herbs and spices - cloves, ginger, coriander, cardamoms and turmeric.
John farms in the Rosehearty area and only a few hours ago was out on a windswept snowy hill, tending his sheep. He is chatting away with the two students sharing his stove, with an eye firmly on his biryani. "I think I would rather sort out sheep if you want to know the truth. It's quite stressful getting all the timings right," he says, although he doesn't appear remotely frazzled.
"Remember to cook your onions properly first, before you add anything else," Naida tells them, as she walks round to see how they're all progressing. Thirty-nine-year-old Naida moved to Scotland with her husband a few years ago and the couple have since built up a successful business, with a restaurant, Lahore Karahi, in Aberdeen and five shops.
Alex Salmond has been delighted to hear the new course got off to such a great start. "More than ever, people are interested in expanding their culinary horizons, whether they're eating at home or eating out, so it's no surprise to learn that these evening classes are proving so popular!" he says.
"Hopefully, if the demand for more in-depth learning can be shown, it won't be long before Banff and Buchan College is able to start offering the more formal qualifications that the restaurant trade is looking for."
If the principal's biryani is anything to go by, then the First Minister will always be assured of a good curry in Fraserburgh. It's not quite ready, but a sampled spoonful is very tasty.
One of the joys of this course is that they all sit down and eat together afterwards - tasting each other's food and comparing it with what Naida produces. "It's such a good group. Half my job is done because they are so enthusiastic," she says.
So what about a few tips for enthusiastic amateurs? "You'll have to sign on for the next course to find out that," they laugh.