Rooftop eatery is jewel in Esk's crown
There can be few rooftop restaurants in Scotland to rival the view from the "eh15" restaurant which sits atop "the Club" at Jewel and Esk College's Milton Road campus in Edinburgh.
The panorama before you stretches from the Fife coast to the beginning of the Border hills, with Arthur's Seat crowning the central view. But it's not just the landscape which impresses, as the Club itself is something of a landmark in Scottish education.
Opened last November, the Club offers students a "real-life" working environment in which to learn and train for careers in hospitality, health and fitness, beauty and complementary therapies, catering and hairdressing.
"The Club has already been visited by HMIE as part of an aspect review and they want to use it as a model of good practice in hospitality training," says Gordon Hodgson, head of faculty for hospitality services at the college.
"The Club is unique, in that it is a commercial enterprise which is self-sustainable and offers the students a taste of reality as opposed to a virtual reality."
In effect, the Club - which boasts a spa with a sauna, jacuzzi, swimming pool and exercise studios, beauty and hair salons, a nail bar, facilities for aromatherapy, massage and reflexology, as well as a cafe and restaurant - functions in a fully professional way and is open to members of the public.
"The membership for the gym stands at over 1,000 and the majority of these are members of the public, as opposed to just staff and students. On any given day, we will see 500 to 600 customers through our doors to use the different facilities," says Mr Hodgson.
What he calls "the interface between the students and commercial reality" is perhaps best demonstrated by the restaurant, refectory and cafe facilities, where the students are cooking for and serving the paying public, including staff and students.
"It's a fully working, fully professional experience with no room for error. If you don't get the dish right first time, you just have to go and do it again - and our business turnover, our sustainability, can cover a few burnt pots, just as anywhere else in the industry," he says.
Under supervision, the students provide hot food for the college refectory (producing 40 to 100 portions each day) and all hospitality students (around 120 drawn from five classes) will work in the eh15 restaurant at some point.
"We mix the NQ1, 2 and 3 level students at any given point in order to promote peer-assisted learning, which is a powerful tool to help bring them on and this is the model we also use for our hairdressing students," says Mr Hodgson.
The rooftop restaurant is open 363 days of the year and students are employed there at weekends on an agency basis, which is better than them having to find part-time work outwith the college. It helps to make them what Mr Hodgson calls "oven-ready chefs".
"Our students go out and hit the ground running. They understand the numbers, the pressures and the difficulties. They are immediately employable," he says.
"We are always thinking of how to enhance the students' experience and improving their employability," says Sally Clark, the Club's general manager who runs the commercial side of things.
"My job is about generating reality. Our benchmark is always what is good practice in the industry. We are after the perfect role model in everything we do."
In her experience as a manager in the industry, she has had many good students pass through her hands, she says, but always they have still had to be trained up: "What this model will provide is students who can slot straight in professionally without needing to be trained up at all."
The commercial success of the Club, which has already exceeded its three-year financial projection in its first year, speaks for itself.
My own experience of lunch at eh15 (starting with crayfish and quails egg with garlic mayo; a main course of fish stew with fennel, orange and red wine jus; and, for dessert, balsamic strawberries with black pepper and mascarpone - coming in at #163;9.50) was of excellent, locally-sourced food, well prepared and beautifully presented, a relaxing atmosphere and a thoroughly professional service.
Already, it is proving popular for business and Sunday lunches, weekend dining, wedding parties and other functions, though, as Mr Hodgson says: "We're still waiting for our first bar-mitzvah."
'I FEEL I COULD GO STRAIGHT INTO A JOB'
"The training here is really good, the tutors are easy to get on with and it's a happy environment.
"I feel I could go straight into a job now, either cooking or waiting, because the restaurant experience here sets you up for that. But now I want to go on to university to do a catering degree.
"I prefer working in the restaurant to any kind of training environment. In class, for example, you might have to prepare or serve for four covers and that's pretty boring compared to eh15, where you have responsibility for 15 covers yourself.
"I've done up to 20 or 30 covers at a time. I'm quite cool-headed and I don't panic, though I never like to see customers waiting when I have to do something else, like maybe clearing another table.
"I've made some dishes that were applauded, including a chicken and mushroom soup and a lemon cheesecake, though I once set my apron on fire and cut myself while chopping onions. I cried - not because of the cut. It was the onions.
"I want one day to be my own boss with my own restaurant. I think we do a very good standard at eh15 and a very good price. You have to enjoy it here. I do."
Marie Robertson, Third-year hospitality student.