Pupils take cuisine to a new and dizzying height

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Venue fit for a king, menu to die for and precision to detail to make a Michelin-star chef proud

A venue fit for a king, a menu to die for and a precision to detail that would make a Michelin-star chef proud. Perth High hosts a gala dinner at Scone Palace

The tables are pristine. Starched white tablecloths, sparkling cutlery, exquisitely folded napkins, beautiful centre pieces and polished candelabras. Surrounding them are glass cabinets filled with priceless china and above, a vaulted ceiling. Outside in the hallway, two brown bears stand sentry to a bygone era of big game hunting and aristocratic grandeur.

Suddenly, there is a hurried whisper. "They're not the right forks."

Two girls cast agonising glances across the room. "It's the ones with the big indents," urges Sara Barrie. After a moment's consideration, Paula Gordon agrees. Without referring to a teacher, they make a decision and quickly change the forks. The tables still look magnificent.

"This whole event belongs to the pupils," says Veronica Kerrigan, home economics teacher at Perth High and supervisor of the school's gala dinner. "I have encouraged them to make every decision and when they come and ask something, I just say, `What do you think?' and get them to come up with the solution."

It is the second year that S5-6 hospitality pupils at the school have held a gala dinner, but this time it's much more ambitious. One striking difference is the venue - the grand Scone Palace, once the crowning place of Scottish kings, where every room is steeped in history. There will also be a record 60 guests dining.

But the teaching staff have gone out on a limb too, allowing the students to organise the evening, from choosing the venue to deciding on the menu.

"We've done it all," says Amy Phillips, who has the role of events manager. During the afternoon, she looks nervous and pale as she focuses on what needs to be done. She doesn't share in the frolics of some of the pupils, dressed in whites, crowding out the small kitchen below stairs. Instead, she patiently measures out the place settings, helped by Kimberly Thomson, head of front of house and a member of Scotland's Under-19 women's football team, and Linzi Berwick, her assistant.

"Last year, the gala dinner was held at Jamesfield Farm, but we only helped with front of house. This year, we have done it from start to finish. We decided on everything, from what we would cook to where we would hold it," says Kimberly.

"We even decided how it would look on the plate," adds Catherine Taylor, whose job on the day has been to make 300 bread rolls. "We laid it out in different ways and then decided what looked best and what was possible on the night."

Downstairs in the kitchen, there are 12 pupil chefs plus two professionals: George Keighly, a consultant and chef lecturer who has been working with the school, and an ex-pupil of his, Graeme Pallister, chef- proprietor of one of Perth's top restaurants, 63 Tay Street, who has taken time out of his own kitchen to help on the day.

Watching over it all is S6 pupil Fiona Matthan, who has been appointed head chef. "I was told I was to be head chef; I don't know why," admits Fiona, who seems unfazed by everything at 4.30pm and with only two-and-a- half hours before guests arrive. "My job is to oversee everyone and make sure it runs OK. I am pretty organised."

Everything seems to be running smoothly, despite the pupils being, understandably, a little wired. They have plated the smoked salmon mousse on pickled cucumber and taken it upstairs to an antechamber. To make things more stressful, every step is being filmed by a crew from STV.

The menu is impressive. The salmon is followed by slow-cooked venison with fondant potato, glazed carrots and red cabbage. Dessert is black treacle pudding with toffee sauce and vanilla ice cream.

"Preparing a banquet is an incredibly difficult thing to do," says Joanna Blythman, journalist and restaurant critic for the Sunday Herald, and one of the lucky few to get a ticket to the feast. "To get the food just right, to balance an interesting menu with what it takes to feed 60 people at exactly the same time, and to make sure it is hot when it is put on the table. The students have done amazingly well. No allowance was necessary for them being school pupils - they were completely professional."

The bones for the venison stock had been cooking for days in the school, releasing a rare aroma around the corridors. The pupils have had masterclasses with some of Scotland's top hospitality people, including Andrew Fairley, two Michelin-starred chef of Gleneagles hotel; Elaine Watson, events manager from Gleneagles, and Nicola Fletcher, a venison specialist.

On the day, Scone's experienced staff are on hand to offer advice and to find the right equipment. Even Viscountess Stormont, a member of the ancient Murray family which has lived at the palace for 400 years, nips downstairs to take a peek.

By 7pm, as the guests begin to arrive, there is a tranquil welcome that belies the earlier activity. Paula has finished the tables and is sitting at the piano performing, while Kimberly and fellow pupil Euan Mallen greet guests, dressed in smart footman uniforms. The service is seamless, upstairs and downstairs.

"The food arrived just as it should, hot and very tasty. Each course was exquisite, and it was obvious the pupils had not taken any shortcuts with preparation," says Ms Blythman. "The service was excellent as well, very focused and professional."

The intention of teachers was to make the whole event as real an exercise as possible, and to aim high. It is an approach they want to continue next year.

"We have a garden at our school and by next year we hope to have grown the vegetable ourselves for the gala dinner," says Mrs Kerrigan, an ex-chef in her second year of teaching and still bursting with enthusiasm and pride in her pupils. "We want them to understand the whole process from raw ingredients to serving perfectly-plated food."

Growing their own food might give the pupils more flexibility with their budget, but the school admits it did benefit this year from its close links with local producers and Perth's farmers' market to get the produce at a reasonable price. But not for free.

"We have to keep the experience realistic, so we don't ask people to give us stuff for nothing," says Fiona Keatings, the depute head. "The pupils have to budget in such a way that the tickets are affordable, in this case pound;35. It's part of the process."

Fortunately for the school, through its links with Mr Fairley, the cost of hiring Scone Palace, normally pound;3,500, was massively discounted. "Actually, it was practically nothing," admits Elspeth Bruce, the palace administrator, who is pleased to support local schools.

The scale of the discount enabled the school to keep tickets affordable for parents, supporters, teachers and councillors. Otherwise, they might have had to make do with the school hall - in which case, the pupils would never have had the dilemma over the forks, the experience of a commercial kitchen or the two huge stuffed bears to hold sentry.

Next week: Blairgowrie High sets up its marquee for its annual gala dinner.

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