Raised on a diet of poverty and failure on the mean streets of Leeds, a group of youngsters has found a new direction inspired by the exotic food of the West Indies. Wendy Wallace talks to the cooks who came in from the cold
Robert, in chef's trousers, and Germane, in waiter's black bow tie, are setting out onion bhajis, prawn vol-au-vents and Johnny cakes - a West Indian savoury doughnut - and dotting the dishes with handwritten labels.
The menu suggests warm, scented breezes ruffling lush palms on exotic beaches. But this feast is set out under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the Leeds Training Centre. Members of various Leeds training initiatives have travelled here through the dark wintry streets for their AGM. They circle the door and sniff appreciatively.
Compliments, indeed, to the chefs, namely Robert, Germane and the 15 other trainees at Dr B's Caribbean restaurant in Chapeltown, Leeds.
The restaurant, a large redbrick building, is open for lunch Tuesday to Friday, and also provides catering for conferences, weddings and voluntary sector functions like this one. Its prime function is not to make money but to help young people get jobs in the catering industry. Students aged 16 to 18 spend two years here, both in the kitchens and "front of house", and can acquire NVQ levels one and two in food preparation and cooking. They spend eight weeks on placement in Leeds restaurants and hotel kitchens - and an impressive 70 per cent go on to find jobs in catering.
For 17-year-old Tariq Hendrix, now in his second year, it is the first time education has made sense to him in many years. "I didn't enjoy school," he says. "All I really needed was primary school - the basics. I don't see what use GCSE's would have been to me. I wanted to cook from when I was young."
For the casual diner, there are few clues that Dr B's is a training initiative funded and run by the charity Barnardo's. From their green-laquered tables and chairs, customers gaze at palm trees painted over the windows and African art dotted across the walls. The food is delicious, the bread home-made and the service only a little over-attentive. "I didn't want it to be a glorified cafe," says project manager Victor Shaw. "If it's training people for the industry, it should be up to industry standards."
The menu - expanded to include "international" as well Caribbean food to broaden its commercial appeal and training possibilities - has something for everyone. You can order jerk pork kebab or red mullet eskovitch (see recipe), or play safe with cream of mushroom soup and halibut with dill and lemon sauce.
These young chefs can even claim their food is fit for royalty: Dr B students cooked for the Queen when she visited Leeds in 1992. Ma'am was served salmon on a sea of leek and julienne of carrots, "She ate everything on her plate," recalls Victor.
Paul Robinson, 37, teaches students cooking. Formerly head chef in one of the city's wine bars, he came as a customer to Dr B's soon after it opened and wasn't impressed by the service. He suggested they needed him, and was taken on.
Happily for his students, his idea of teaching is more enlightened than some in the catering industry. "Generally in catering you sort of bark at people, and if they don't get it you hit them," he says. "That's how I got trained, and I vowed I would never do the same."
Although Dr B's does not set out to recruit only the vulnerable, many students have a history of failure at school and poverty, abuse or disruption at home. The voluntary sector ethos of the restaurant supports some students who might not make it in a mainstream catering college. Literacy teaching is bought in for those who need it, and sometimes counselling.
"We get youngsters who were written off at school and they flower here ," says Victor. "We're very patient, and most are potentially damn good employees. We focus closely on the individual."
Chapeltown is not as poor as it was when local youths rioted in 1981, but an image of violence and poverty still dogs the area; Dr B's is the only restaurant, and the location scares off some who might otherwise enjoy its food. "People say 'I'd love to come, but will the car be safe?' " says Paul Robinson.
There are enough adventurous customer to ensure that the restaurant generates about pound;50,000 towards its pound;200,000 annual costs. but more funds are needed. "This kind of training is good quality, but it's costly," says Victor. "It's got to the stage where Barnardo's is looking to the local authority for support."
Few who have tasted the cooking and seen the benefits for the young trainees will doubt that any such public funds will be money well spent.
A TASTE OF CALYPSO
In the song "Brown girl in the Ring", Boney M refer to 'fried fish and johnny cake'. Here is Dr B's recipe for Red Mullet Escovitch (fried fish with pickled vegetables) and Johnny (once 'journey') Cakes:
Red Mullet Escovitch
Four fillets of fish. One green and one red pepper. Two sticks of celery. One onion. Juice of one lemon. Malt vinegar. Garlic. Bay leaves. Caribbean Everyday Seasoning. Seasoned flour
Rub cut cloves of garlic on the fish, add lemon juice, season with salt, pepper and Caribbean Everyday
Seasoning and leave to marinate overnight. Finely slice the onion, peppers and celery and put in saucepan with two bay leaves and half pint of vinegar. Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Dip the marinaded fish in seasoned flour, and fry in shallow oil. When cooked, arrange on a plate, spoon the vegetables over the top and serve with Johnny cakes.
8oz self-raising flour. 2oz margarine. pinch sugar pinch salt.
Rub the ingredients together until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add enough water to make a soft dough with an elastic consistency. Knead, and allow to rest for 30 minutes. Roll into 8-10 balls in the palms of your hands. Flatten them slightly, and fry in vegetable oil until cooked through. These can be kept hot in the oven if necessary.