Where the only 'F word' is food

28th March 2008 at 00:00
Gordon Ramsay is responsible for the popular image of the chaotic restaurant. His Kitchen Nightmares programme shows businesses threatening to come apart at the seams: stressed managers, surly chefs and serving staff flailing like headless chickens.

Nothing could be further from the truth at The Gallery, Perth College's training restaurant for HNC professional cookery and HND hospitality students.

There are some familiar sounds - staccato cries of "service" and "yes, chef" - but within a prevailing atmosphere of calm, controlled industry. That could be because there is only one sitting for lunch or dinner, or because lecturer and experienced chef Clive Lamb oversees things with quiet authority, but it is also largely down to the students' skill and confidence.

"We're good at working as a team," says Rory Lovie, 18, an HNC professional cookery student and head chef on the night The TESS visits.

"It's well organised - we all know what we've got to do," adds Laura Mackie, 21, who is taking the two-year HND in hospitality.

The Gallery was recently named Scotland's best college restaurant by Restaurant magazine, but a packed dining area - there is room for about 40 covers - suggests that the quality is high, even away from the beady eyes of the judges. Elderly couples in tweed, young families and boisterous groups of friends are all contributing to the contented thrum of sated diners.

The restaurant opens every Thursday and Friday lunchtime, and Tuesday lunchtimes from September to December. Themed dinners are served on Tuesdays between January and May, and have included French, Italian and Polish nights.

At the end of each sitting, the students who have prepared the meals emerge from the kitchen en masse to meet their customers. Cooking for real customers, then hearing their comments, is a highlight of both the cookery and hospitality courses. Laura, who has worked in hospitality since the age of 16 and wants to be a restaurant manager, says: "It's nice to know the work we're putting in is good - there are a lot of repeat customers.

"I love getting to meet the customers - building up a relationship with them and having a banter."

Rory, who after his year at college wants to work his way up and own his own restaurant, says: "I think this is everybody's favourite bit. Every time we go out, the customers always give us praise."

Rory recently travelled to London for the UK finals of College Restaurant of the Year - Perth lost out on that prize - and got to visit Notting Grill, one of the restaurants run by celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson.

It was a chance to learn about the gulf between a training kitchen and a celebrated professional restaurant. But while Rory was impressed with what he saw, on another level he was nonplussed: it all seemed "pretty similar" to The Gallery.

GASTRONOMIC FLAIR

First-time visitors do a double-take when they step into The Gallery, which feels more like a family-run Parisian bistro than a training restaurant.

Perth College's showcase for its cookery and hospitality students lets them try out their skills on the public and gives the public a chance to eat restaurant-quality food at knockdown prices.

Tonight is French night, at pound;13 for three courses and tea or coffee with petits fours. Add in a bottle of Australian Shiraz or Chardonnay, and a bill for two is only pound;33. And that doesn't mean any corners are cut.

Soupe a l'oignon gratinee is comfort food of the highest order: rich, intense and teeming with slivers of soft onion.

Sole bonne femme means three dainty fillets alongside steaming, parsley-flecked boiled potatoes and a mushroom sauce subtly enlivened by white wine. The tender flakes of fish have just started to meld - they are just a smidgeon overcooked - but the restrained flavours of sauce and accompaniments mean their delicate flavour comes to the fore.

Beignets aux pommes are little ringed apple fritters. The batter is light and crispy, and balanced by the milky freshness of homemade rum and raisin ice cream; a trail of butter-scotch sauce adds a syrupy flourish.

The students' refusal to clutter the classic dishes with pretentious adornments shows a maturity of approach; the careful balancing of flavours proves they also have real skill.

Photograph: Fraser Band

TYPICAL LUNCH MENU

STARTERS

Western Isles smoked salmon cheesecake with a fine herb salad and dill oil

pound;2

Creamy parsnip soup with caramelised apples

pound;1.50

Twice-baked Tobermory and spinach souffle accompanied by a nutmeg cream

pound;1.50

MAINS

Loin Rannoch Estate venison with creamy cabbage thyme rosti and a cranberry jus

pound;3.75

Rosemary roasted crispy breast of chicken with basil crushed potatoes and balsamic cherry tomatoes

pound;3.25

Wild mushroom and pine kernel risotto with saffron oil and parmesan crisp

pound;3

DESSERTS

Dark chocolate tart with an orange compote

pound;1.50

Sticky toffee pudding

pound;1.50

Minestrone of tropical fruit with a passion fruit sorbet

pound;1.50.

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