Lessons in service with a dash of style
Large, white plates held high in their hands, the fourth-year pupils step briskly towards two tables, set with gleaming cutlery and crisp serviettes, in the assembly hall at Larbert High. It looks more like formation dancing than hotel hospitality.
"Wait for the team leader to give you the nod," commands Alan Fraser, private dining manager at Gleneagles Hotel.
"On the first nod, you serve. Second, step left. Third, plates on the table. Fourth, follow the leader back to the kitchen. Nice and easy. Yes? Let's go."
He marches off and the youngsters, slightly panicked at the speed of it all, struggle to keep up. "Well done, guys," he tells them at the end, and takes a moment to explain what's going on. "It's about creating theatre for the guests. We do this before every serving. The service needs to be synchronised, attractive, professional and pleasing to the eye."
This is the first time he has trained schoolchildren, he says. "But I'm loving it. I am used to training my own staff, but not as many in one day. My throat's sore and I still have ten sessions to go."
That is because the whole fourth-year is taking part in this one-day hospitality and tourism event, explains depute headteacher Ann Buchan. "We wanted to give every one of them a taste of the career possibilities and the contact with real professionals. So we have set up ten different 20- minute carousel activities by hotel staff, here and in the gym hall - mocktails, flambe, front of house, laying tables. Upstairs we have got five classrooms and kitchens with ten chefs and pupils doing double periods of omelettes and fancy chocolates, food games and quizzes. By the end of the day, the entire fourth-year will have taken part in every activity. It's like a military operation.
"We are staggered by the staff who have volunteered to come here. We have got 30 people from Gleneagles and five from the Hilton. They arrived last night in a Pickford's truck with all their stuff."
Inside the school, Mrs Buchan and former principal teacher of food and consumer technology Audrey Gibson organised the campaign. Outside it, a charity called Springboard, which promotes careers in hospitality, leisure, travel and tourism, played a vital role.
"The initial contact was through one of its ambassadors, John Willis," says Mrs Buchan. "He is a former chef who has been coming in to Larbert High for some time, working in food and consumer technology. Through John, we got together with the people at Gleneagles and we worked together as a team for ten months to set up this day.
"Secondary 4 is a key year for our kids, because some leave and some stay on to go to college or university. We are aiming to do two things today - demonstrate the plethora of careers open to them, and give them an experience of being a guest in a big hotel.
"In the new curriculum we are looking at young people's wider experience, in terms of skills for learning, life and work."
Roughly a third of the fourth-year pupils are studying hospitality and tourism, says Mrs Buchan. "But they will all have experienced hospitality in first year, before making their subject choices and sitting Standard grades at the end of third year. Most of our fourth-years are on two-year courses leading to Higher or Intermediate."
A sudden burst of blue flame catches the eye at a station where pupils are seated in rows, watching Gleneagles restaurant manager Willie Jones making magic with a large pan and a bottle of Grand Marnier. As the crepe suzettes are passed around, someone wonders if liqueur and fourth-years might also be combustible.
"All the alcohol gets burnt off," Mr Jones explains reassuringly. "But it does leave a lovely flavour."
Young Bradley Yule nibbles a crepe and nods his agreement. He wants to work in radio rather than hospitality, he says, but is enjoying the day and learning a lot. The unusually good food is a big part of the appeal. "I liked doing the cooking and watching the chefs upstairs," he says.
"We had a day something like this in third-year on construction. They came in and had a couple of diggers and brick-building at the back, then they had architectural stuff in here. It was good, but today is better."
At the next station, Gleneagles clubhouse manager Richard Patten has given a small demonstration and set the students a challenge - 12 minutes to lay a table for two guests. It's not easy, admits Sophie Brockie.
"Everything we are seeing today is very professional. The best so far has been the chocolate. You heat it up, then cool it down with more chocolate and it goes smooth," she says. "I like getting tasters of all these different careers. It's a good day."
Several other pupils having mentioned the chocolate, Mrs Buchan leads the way to the food and consumer technology department, where pupils and teachers are learning the difference between a chef's chocolate and a Snickers bar. The secret is tempering, Paul Devonshire, head chef at Gleneagles' Strathearn Restaurant, tells his class.
"It's what we do to chocolate to make it firm and crisp, with that lovely Easter egg shine. If you buy good chocolate, it's got that crunch. It's shiny and it cracks like glass. That tells you it's been tempered."
Nowadays this is more science than art, and there are even machines that can do the hard work. Gleneagles prefers a more traditional technique: "We take a small part of the chocolate out, bring the rest up to a temperature of 41 degrees, remove the heat, then cool it down by adding the solid chocolate again."
He picks a fresh strawberry from the work surface, and uses a piping-bag to cover the upper half with mouth-watering, melted chocolate. "If it's too hot, it will just come off; too cold and you don't get that lovely shine. Now it's your turn. You are going to coat a piece of fudge and a strawberry with chocolate, and take them home with you."
Besides their expertise and inside knowledge, the professionals have been asked today to share a little of themselves and their career paths. Mr Devonshire has a schools-friendly message. "When I was 15 I just wanted to be a chef. Qualifications? - didn't need them.
"But now I need physics to understand the cooking. I need maths for the costings. I want English for the menus. I feel the lack of all these now. Because the better you get, the less you cook. When you are 50, you can't compete at cooking with these young pups. My job is 95 per cent management."
While today is aimed at all fourth-year students, it provides a particularly good opportunity for those with hospitality ambitions. "I was talking to one of the chefs, because that is what I want to do when I leave school," says Stewart Shedden. "He was giving me good advice on how to get started."
The quality of the ingredients and the care taken to prepare them have impressed Holly Findlay. "I also like how we have got more time to get right into things today. At school, you are usually rushing about. I would like to be a chef."
Leaving the chocolate reluctantly, we follow Mrs Buchan to the gym hall, where expert ironing, t'ai chi, front of house, spa and hairdressing are all on offer. Once again what impresses are the skills the professionals bring to their craft and the commitment to quality.
"It's interesting for teachers and pupils," says modern language teacher Emma Kerr. "Spa and beauty, we have been hearing, is about moods and feelings. The boys are as interested as the girls - they are first up out of their seats to get a crystal or try an aroma."
That active engagement of all pupils is one of the benefits of a day that Mrs Buchan admits has been a "massive undertaking". There are others. "The new curriculum is about more than what happens in a classroom. Our pupils have experienced success today. They were dead chuffed when they made their chocolates and omelettes.
"Learning and teaching now is about working for yourself, working in a team, being a leader, speaking out, making presentations, communicating with adults. This day has given them a taste of all that. It has broadened their vision. They now know they can enter the industry at different levels, from school to university."
She laughs. "You know what it's like in a school. We are teachers but we are not real people - not to the kids. They have been meeting real people today, with real jobs. They will remember that."
Work in progress
Every year-group at Larbert High now has a day of events and activities that focus on skills for learning, life and work, says depute rector Ann Buchan.
"For S1 and S2 it's Ready, Steady Cook, which we piloted last year. A chef from Chartwells comes in and gets young people and staff up making a dish. He links it to health and well-being, talks about nutritional values, gives them a quiz. It's entertainment as well as education."
Construction is the focus for third-years, she says. "We piloted a half- day last year and evaluation was very good. So this year we ran a full day - another massive exercise with 300 kids and 40 construction staff. We had to get permission to let them dig up the grounds and build a wall."
Laing O'Rourke took centre stage. "They have so many trades and professions - plumbers, bricklayers, electricians, architects - that we could make it very practical, as well as looking at qualifications, apprenticeships and interviews."
Evaluation of the S4 hospitality day and planning for next year's will happen soon, she says. "Caroline Baird at Springboard was key to getting all those people in and making it happen."
The charity Tree of Knowledge has also been running leadership and motivation sessions for senior pupils.
- Original headline: Lessons in service with a smile and a dash of style