Where cooking is a hole-in-one

31st October 2008 at 00:00
How a course at Perth College led to a dream job as the head pastry chef at Gleneagles

Going to Perth College as a first step towards his ambition of becoming a top chef wasn't a hard decision, says Chris Munnings. But it did have more implications for him than for his fellow students. Travel was trickier, since Perth is not exactly local for a youngster from Devon.

"My parents moved up to Perth with me, because I really wanted to do the course. They've found nice jobs now," he says.

Chris has also come a long way in career terms - from the Chinese takeaway which first fired his love of cookery when he was 14, to the patisserie in 5-star Gleneagles Hotel, three years later, with an excellent qualification and more on the way. "I wasn't having much success in England," he admits. "College courses there were terrible - all on subjects like English, history and maths. Here it's about what you want to do - like hairdressing, mechanics or cooking. I find that so much more appealing."

That practical element appeals to most students who take the course leading to the City and Guilds Professional Chef Award, says Ian Gibb, curriculum manager for tourism, hospitality and leisure. But that doesn't mean the theory is neglected - or the core skills that every young person needs.

It does mean that the Perth College course is a carefully-crafted mix whose merits were recently recognised by HMIE. Highlighting it as an example of sector-leading and innovative practices, the inspectors point to masterclasses and work experience at the hotel, assessment by a professional chef, folios on theory put together by students, and contextualised core skills. "College staff developed this innovative training in conjunction with a local and internationally renowned hotel."

It is this partnership with Gleneagles Hotel that makes all the difference, says Mr Gibb. "I remember the head chef at the hotel where I first worked saying to me `Forget everything you learned at college - this is how you'll do it now.'

"I had gone there at 17 with my college qualifications, thinking I knew something. It was demoralising. What he says now, though, is that if industry had been involved in college courses then, he'd have thought more highly of them."

This early lesson stuck, says Mr Gibb. "I didn't want anybody to say that to our students. That's why I decided to get industry involvement from the start, in the delivery of the course and in examining it."

The pastry chef is a specialised and valued component of any top kitchen, but the traditional skills of these experts are disappearing. So the one- day a week patisserie and bakery module is a key section of the Perth College course. It is also the part that best illustrates the HMIE- commended innovative approach to partnership, he says.

"Neil Mugg, the head pastry chef at Gleneagles, examines them as if they were working at the hotel, while they produce half a dozen items including bread, biscuits, pastries, desserts. It means the students can then go out and say, `This is what I got from City and Guilds. And this is what I got from Gleneagles Hotel.' It's a cracking certificate to talk about at interviews."

The college-hotel partnership began with former head pastry chef Ian Ironside, who worked with Mr Gibb on setting up the course. Maintaining continuity with industrial partners can be difficult, says Mr Gibb, but the current head pastry chef is every bit as enthusiastic.

"I go into the college and mentor and train the students," says Mr Mugg. He regards this is as a natural extension of his role at the hotel.

"My job's not just about cakes and pastries. It's about sharing my skills with the young people under me. I'm happy to go to college and prepare students to work in the industry. I talk to them about the importance of time-keeping, attention to detail, following recipes - of what they're pursuing at college and where it can lead. HMI recognised that this is not just about getting them through the course. It's about preparing them for the industry."

Some youngsters need more preparation than others, says Mr Mugg. "I remember one student who came in and everyone was in their whites but him. He said they'd been in the washbasket for a week - `because my Ma's no washed them yet.' I drew a symbol on the board with a 60 under it and told him to go home, turn the machine to that, use one scoop of powder or two tablets, and put his whites in to wash. Not only would he have a set of chef's whites that were clean, he would learn a useful life skill.

"Working with youngsters who want to be chefs is not about shouting at them, like on television. It's about coaching and supporting them and helping them to learn."

For Chris Munnings that support has helped get him where he wanted to be. "I'm not great at the paperwork and there's more of it on the HNC. I'm going to have to spend all next week on paperwork. But the college is really nice. I seemed to fit in right from the start. I love cooking and learning new stuff - and the customers at Gleneagles usually let you know when they like your food. That gives you confidence."




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