Prue Leith has accepted defeat. Despite vowing not to eat anything in her bid to lose half a stone before she starts filming The Great British Bake Off, she has been worn down by the irresistible selection of colourful cakes and perfectly baked scones sitting in front of her.
Leith is enjoying afternoon tea as guest of honour at the opening of the BR6 Bakehouse, the new student-led eatery at London South East Colleges (LSEC) in Orpington, Kent, which sells light lunches, breads, cakes and pastries – all baked by teenagers. It’s an extension of BR6 Restaurant next door, which has been serving the community for two years.
This isn’t an amateur offering of cheap and filling student gloop, but a professional, licensed restaurant with front of house, uniformed staff and quality meat dishes, risottos, fresh salads and desserts – all good enough to have made it the town’s number one dining experience, according to TripAdvisor.
“It’s about time we had this type of training,” says Leith, 77, who was on the national task force that set up NVQs in the 1980s and 90s. “I’ve had a college in South Africa [Leith’s native country] for 20 years that does this. Many caterers, restaurateurs and educators have wanted to do this for years and for one reason or another it’s been impossible. Either the college is too insular and doesn’t want to get involved with industry, or industry thinks they’re not serious. It’s a vicious circle.”
College-based catering schools are on the rise and the key to their success is authenticity. While the 14- to 19-year-olds at LSEC’s Hospitality, Food and Enterprise Career College combine studying levels 1 to 3 in vocational training with their usual academic curriculum at a different site, this isn’t kids playing at making food.
“It’s important the college is a proper restaurant,” explains Leith, “not a miserable room on the third floor that was last decorated in the 70s and is never open at night. Here, they’ve got a smart-sounding menu, it’s a joy to see the equipment is right and there are really high standards.” The equipment she refers to includes three professional stainless-steel kitchens, which she said she would have “killed for” in her youth, with their vast workspaces and under-counter fridges.
The teachers provide the high standards. Executive chef Jason Main has 24 years’ cooking experience and trained under renowned chef Rosemary Shrager. Pastry chef Steve James honed his skills with Michelin-star winner Tom Aikens.
“Whereas I’m a qualified teacher, I’m a chef first and I’m here to run a restaurant,” says Main. “That means we work out costings, wastage and gross profit. There are no rose-coloured glasses here. We train the students to move seamlessly into jobs.”
Links with the trade
LSEC has excellent contacts with hotels and restaurants, and students visit regularly, shadowing professionals and completing work placements. They also receive masterclasses from experts. “You need people who are in touch with customers every day to know where the trends are going and what they should be learning,” says Leith.
The focus is on learning a wide range of skills. “I don’t think it’s fair to expect students to know exactly where they want to go,” she says. Her own career has been varied: “I started in catering, which is my first love, as I like the fact there are no rehearsals and there’s all this tension. I then went into the restaurant trade, as I wanted to do exquisite food for posh people. Then I got into school dinners, as I think it’s important that children learn how to eat well.”
Add on cookbook writer, food stylist, novelist and of course television presenter, and Leith is living proof that a background in catering can take you pretty much anywhere.
The students I speak to have various ambitions. One wants to be a chef, another a manager and another wants to work front of house. One young man who is carefully slicing the fat off a rack of lamb in preparation for an exam in cooking meat has discovered an interest in wine and has work experience set up in Champagne in France. Another has applied to cater at a ski resort. Harrison, an 18-year-old apprentice, hopes to be a waiter or barista, as he loves the interaction with customers. “I couldn’t talk to people before I came here,” he says.
Not many of the teenagers recognise Leith. This will change, of course, when she replaces Mary Berry in the new series of Bake Off, due to be broadcast on Channel 4 later in the year. “I’m excited,” she says, acknowledging the role that programmes such as this have in making cooking popular with young people.
When we meet, the start of filming is just days away. “The closer it gets, the more nervous I become,” she says. “I love the line-up, though. I’ve known Sandi [Toksvig] for years and I adore Noel [Fielding].”
Leith was delighted to see that the home economists working behind the scenes were trained at her London-based Leith’s School of Food and Wine. Give it a few years: they could well be replaced by students from LSEC.
Kate Bohdanowicz is a freelance journalist and former FE teacher. She tweets @Kate_Bod