Sweet taste of success

1st May 2009 at 01:00
A short, sharp residential culinary course is life-changing for young adults with troubled histories

They have not had the best start in life and now they have 12 weeks to turn their lives around.

Charlene ran away from home when she was 15 and lived on the streets. Kevin's been in care since he was four and is just out of jail. They are in class today on the third week of a fast-track residential course to turn them into commis chefs, and it's not going to be easy. But they know they've been given a break and are sweating through 10-hour shifts under the eagle eye of some no-nonsense chefs. And there's the possibility of a job at the end.

This is Adam Smith College's award-winning culinary training programme Quick to the Cut, where six young adults who have been unemployed are thrown a lifeline. They have left family and friends to live in Aviemore for three months and it's testing them to their limits.

Kevin and Charlene get expert advice from top chef and catering operations manager Mark Swinney and his team of chefs in the fine dining restaurant, the Italian restaurant, the bistro and food court. And when they're not chopping and stirring, they're in the classroom learning all it takes to get their SVQ Level II Professional Chef in a short time.

If the six on this course make the grade, they could land a job here - but there are still nine weeks to go and if they sleep in or turn up in messy whites, they could jeopardise their chances.

"This is the first rung in the ladder and they've to treat this like a working interview," says Heather Reilly, a professional chef and the college's training co-ordinator.

Heather works with students one day a week in class and monitors their progress in the kitchen. She understands what a struggle this is after months on the dole, especially as it's a while since the students have done any learning. "It's a difficult time for them, but the difference we see from the beginning to the end of the programme is incredible."

Charlene Stanley, 22, is a mum of three - John, 5, Mikey, 4, and James, nearly 2. She left school at 15 and lived on the streets for three years. "I got in with the wrong crowd," she says. "Mum and Dad split up when I was young and I lived with all my family a few months here and a few months there. I was so used to fending for myself, I just thought I'd do it somewhere else."

"I should have done my qualifications. I never got to and it's always been a bugbear. I knew I could have done something with my life. I want a better future for my kids, not just to be mummy on the dole."

Kevin McLetchie, 20, has been in care since he was four and says he started getting into trouble when he was eight. "I was in trouble most of my life. I decided I wanted to do something about it, so I can prove I'm not just another bammer who gets the jail," he says. "I didn't like school, I can't sit in a class and listen to someone reading or anything - that's how I find doing this so hard. But if you give me something practical to do, I'd be able to do it.

"I'm not going back to jail again - ever. I've got a fiancee I've been with for a year-and-a-half. I spent six or seven months in the jail and Kelly stood by me." He stops clicking his pen on and off for a split second and smiles.

The frenetic activity of a hectic, hot kitchen seems to suit students like 24-year-old John. "It's good experience, it's an 18-month course in 12 weeks, so it's intense. But if you're organised and prepared in the kitchen, it's all sweet."

Courses like this were set up to address problems recruiting young commis chefs and all students are guaranteed a job interview. "Chefs in top hotels need fully-trained commis chefs and often find the day-release system frustrating," says the college's curriculum head of hospitality, George Smith.

"Similarly, many students prefer full-on intense learning. Quick to the Cut delivers a short, sharp, concentrated course, which works for employers and students," says Mr Smith, who developed this course in partnership with Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort and Springboard Scotland, which promotes careers in hospitality and tourism.

This work-based residential programme has been identified as best practice by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, and was shortlisted last year for an SQA Star Award for Innovation. Charlene and Kevin's group is the third team of students to train in Aviemore - the course extended to operate in four- and five-star hotels in Inverness.

The programme has had "100 per cent success rate so far", says Mr Smith, with candidates gaining employment in tourism, and keen to build on that success.

"Sometimes, when you're standing for five hours chopping veg, you could fall asleep where you're stood," says Charlene. "But the buzz of service, when there's people in and you have got to run around and get six plates out in five minutes - that's a buzz."

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