From porridge to cordon bleu

29th June 2007 at 01:00

Life for a former young offender has been transformed after graduating from Jamie Oliver's latest training venture

WHEN SAM Lounds left home and quit school at 16, only to become caught up in dealing cannabis, his idea of a meal was a bowl of Weetabix. Now he is one of the first apprentices to graduate from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's newest venture, training youths for the restaurant trade. He even has his own speciality dish: grilled sea bass with a red onion confit and tomato concasse.

More importantly, for someone who struggled to find work after serving nine months in prison for possessing drugs with intent to supply, he has a promising career, with work lined up at restaurants from London to Puglia in Italy.

Sam is one of 12 trainees who stayed the course to complete an apprenticeship at Fifteen Corn-wall, an offshoot of the TV chef's foundation in east London. A further five reached NVQ level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), after the three-month training programme at Cornwall College.

"If none of this had happened, I would still be stuck in the same old life," Sam said. "If I hadn't been taken on by Fifteen I could have gone back to prison again."

The 22-year-old, who lives in Newquay, travelled to France and Spain as a competitive surfer in his teenage years, but quit as the pressure of training took away his enjoyment of the sport.

He left home after falling out with his parents - they have a very strong relationship now, he says - and he fell in with bad company who offered him the chance to make easy money selling drugs.

"It was greed," he said. "I was offered a lot of money to do some things and I did them."

After his arrest, he was sentenced to 15 months in a young offenders'

institution, reduced to nine on appeal.

In prison, he took all the qualifications he could, adding key skills qualifications, health and safety and food hygiene certificates to the GCSEs he earned at school. But until he found Fifteen Cornwall, based at Watergate Bay near Newquay, he still found it difficult to get a job.

"I never really did cooking before, but I thought I'd do it just to do something productive. After about three or four weeks in college, I got very enthusiastic about it. Now I feel it's a way of expressing myself," he said.

After the initial training period, apprentices at Fifteen Cornwall work in the restaurant under the guidance of experienced professionals, helping to cook Italian-inspired food for 80,000 customers in its first year.

Profits from the restaurant go to its parent charity, the Cornwall Foundation for Promise, which helps apprentices with personal and professional problems throughout their training and into employment. It also received a total of more than pound;1 million in start-up costs from the European Union and the South West of England Regional Development Agency.

Cornwall is among the poorest counties in England, and many of the trainees had few qualifications, a history of unemployment and, in some cases, a criminal record.

"I had personal problems outside work and I definitely had a problem with confidence and whether I was good enough," Sam said. "They've helped me massively with that.

"My parents are gobsmacked. They're like, `What's happened to him?' They're dead proud of me."

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