Vocational - Grubs up well

3rd October 2008 at 01:00
Talent is simmering away in Scottish kitchens, and the only difference between classrooms and restaurants are the words `Yes, Miss' not `Yes, Chef', says Linda Adam

The young chefs entering the production kitchen in the state-of-the- art hospitality suite are third year pupils studying Intermediate 2 professional cookery. They are participating in a vocational course that forms part of Scotland's Curriculum for Excellence.

Today's lesson is on food preparation - boning meat - so it's chicken ballotine with duxelle and chasseur sauce on the menu. To complete the meal, the pupils will serve boiled baby potatoes and vichy carrots. With fruit crumble and custard for pudding, we revisit the cookery processes of boiling and baking and preparing vegetables.

The visiting chef lecturer instigates a starter activity by asking: "What are the quality points of chicken?" The pupils are comfortable with this and respond enthusiastically. They also offer reasons as to why this is of paramount importance in a professional situation. He then demonstrates the technique of boning the chicken. The pupils have justifiable reservations about whether they can complete this process to the standard required.

The key criterion for success is that the food must meet not only the exacting standards of the chef lecturer, who regularly works with top chefs in Scotland's best-known restaurants, but also - for the first time - the expectations of paying customers. This makes the lesson a truly vocational experience.

Once the young chefs have successfully prepared the chicken ballotine and refrigerated it, they turn their attention to the rest of the meal. As most of the processes are revision, the kitchen takes on an air of quiet confidence.

Meanwhile, a group of sixth year pupils, studying for a Scottish Vocational Qualification in food and drink service, are preparing for lunchtime service in the adjoining restaurant. Bookings are checked and the tables are set under the watchful eye of the maitre d'.

As service approaches, there is a sense of heightened anticipation and growing nervousness. The chef lecturer organises the pupils for the finishing and serving of the food. They are divided into sections and each pupil is given a specific responsibility, reflecting procedures in a quality restaurant.

"If someone makes a mistake, just fix it. The priority is to get the food out", is the message that is to become their mantra.

One of the front-of-house staff tells us the first customers are seated. The pupils realise they have reached the point of no return. I am "on the pass" as the first check comes through the swing doors. The pupils jump into action at my command and the kitchen becomes a cauldron of concentration and activity.

The only sign that we are in a school and not a commercial kitchen is the reply to the call for "Two chicken for table four, please" - not "Yes, Chef" but "Yes, Miss."

The pupils are challenged not only by the cooking and presentation of the food, but on the determination and teamwork required to deliver the highest standard to a discerning audience.

They take an active interest in how much of their food is eaten by the customers. They would almost take it as an insult if any food remained uneaten. As the plates are returned to the kitchen, photographs taken as verification for the Scottish Qualifications Authority are the only evidence that remains of their morning's work.

The obligatory recording of data in activities logs, completed by tired but animated pupils, documents the food preparation techniques and cookery processes demonstrated in the lesson. What it does not fully capture is the wider achievement of pupils who have fulfilled the aspirations of the new curriculum by demonstrating that they are successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

Linda Adam is principal teacher of home economics at Cardinal Newman High School in Bellshill, Lanarkshire.

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