FRUSTRATED by the lack of well-trained chefs to staff his expanding group of restaurants in the North-west, Paul Heathcote decided he had to tackle the problem head on. Instead of joining the growing band of restaurateurs up and down the country who were simply despairing about what to do, Heathcote opened his own training school.
Heathcote's School of Excellence was launched a year ago, in August 1997, at a cost of £250,000. The original intention was to train staff for Heathcote's three-strong group of restaurants - Paul Heathcote's restaurant, Longridge, Lancashire; Heathcotes Brasserie, Preston, Lancashire; and Simply Heathcotes, Manchester - as well as his expanding outside catering business, which currently includes Preston North End Football Club and the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Southport. But it was soon apparent that other employers in the Manchester area were keen to tap into the training expertise that Heathcote was going to offer.
As a result, 24 young Modern Apprentices, studying for NVQ levels 2 and 3, have just completed their first year of a 26-month scheme. They enjoy the benefits of working in industry, while at the same time taking part in training sessions at Heathcote's School of Excellence, situated adjacent to Simply Heathcotes in Jacksons Row, off Deansgate, Manchester.
In addition to this group of apprentices, who are employed at various establishments throughout the city - including the Victoria & Albert Hotel, the Millennium & Copthorne Hotel, John Lewis, Manchester United Catering, and the BBC - there are another 12 young chefs who are following a similar form of on-the-job training throughout the Heathcote empire.
Nearly all the youngsters accepted on to the training programme were previously unemployed. Many had no burning ambition to enter the industry, but were keen to jump on board once presented with the opportunities that lay ahead of them.
"I think this is the way forward for training within the industry," says Heathcote, as much an entrepreneur these days as an award-winning and inspirational chef. "Because of under-funding of the colleges, we have a major problem now with the quality of young people coming out of those establishments. The Government wants to use the skills of people in industry to provide training and that is exactly what we are offering."
Funding for the apprenticeship schemes is split between the school itself and the Manchester Training & Enterprise Council (TEC), a Government-funded body. The school has negotiated with all the employers involved for them to pay their apprentices £70 per week during their first year of training, by the end of which they should have obtained NVQ level 2.
During the second year, apprentices receive £90 per week and upon completion of the training, when they achieve NVQ level 3, they will earn a minimum wage of £140 per week. All employers have guaranteed the apprentices a permanentposition - usually at a commis or demi-chef de partie level.
Penny Sanders, director of Manchester TEC, says Heathcote's School of Excellence has become a role model for other industries as they plan the future of their own apprenticeship schemes. "The construction industry has already adopted a similar form of apprenticeship, and the hairdressing industry is also looking at it," she explains.
"We were very happy to support Paul with his plans. He has been very much driven by the aspirations of Manchester to become a major tourist centre and the need to support that by producing more first-class chefs," she says. "The school's premises and equipment are of a very high standard and the level of training being offered is what one would expect from a centre of excellence." She adds that Manchester TEC had also contributed towards the initial set-up costs of the school, and has an ongoing contract to support the training programme.
opportunities next door
Heathcote's own position within the industry - and the existence of a 140-seat public restaurant in the form of Simply Heathcotes next door - provides the school with opportunities not readily available to many colleges around the country. "Through my contacts with the industry I can call on chefs such as Gary Rhodes and Brian Turner to come up here for the day to do demonstrations for the apprentices, which they find enormously inspirational. And Charles Metcalf has also done a seminar on the marriage between food and wine," he says.
Demonstrations by visiting chefs and the school's teaching staff take place in a purpose-built demonstration area, with a full-width angled mirror that enables up to 40 students, sitting theatre-style, to view everything that goes on. Eight work areas enable the youngsters to practice what they have learnt and the school is also open to amateurs for a series of Heathcote's Hands-On courses. These offer a wide range of subjects, including Indian cuisine, chocolate work and vegetarian cooking.
Further inspiring initiatives for the apprentices include trips abroad, the first of which took place last week. The youngsters' destination was Bordeaux - they visited three vineyards to learn about the wine-making process and met up with counterparts from French catering schools. Employers in Manchester showed their support for the venture by raising more than £2,000to finance the trip. A fund-raising dinner for 140 guests was held in June at the city's Bridgewater Hall, home of the Hallé Orchestra, and extra funding was provided by Manchester TEC.
Other organisations that have come on board include Preston catering company Kuppersbuch, which has sponsored an Apprentice of the Month competition, presenting a knife and a steel to each winner. And the first Apprentice of the Year has just been announced, with Kris Howarth (see left) of the Victoria & Albert Hotel winning dinner for two at Paul Heathcote's restaurant, overnight accommodation at Gibbon Bridge Hotel, Chipping, Lancashire, and a selection of books.
Each apprentice is closely monitored, with one of Heathcote's six-strong training team visiting every apprentice every six weeks to discuss his or her progress with both them and their employer.
While several apprentices have dropped out, upon discovering catering was not for them, there is no shortage of youngsters eager to fill their places. Some 90 young people have been interviewed to fill the next intake of 24 Modern Apprentices, due to start training in September.
The first apprentices were recruited rather hurriedly, before there was much awareness about the school. "Now people are more aware of what the training is all about, we expect to select a more committed group of apprentices in future," says Sanders.
Many of Manchester's most talented and highest-qualified chefs have left the region in recent years to seek better opportunities in London and elsewhere. But now with the revitalisation of the Manchester hotel and restaurant scene - and more openings planned as we head towards the Commonwealth Games in the city in 2002 - Heathcote hopes that many of the gifted youngsters due to graduate from his school will remain in the area.
And he does not intend to stop at chefs when it comes to improving the pool of skilled and qualified young staff in the region. A similar apprenticeship scheme for waiting staff is expected to get under way by the end of the year. n
Heathcote's School of Excellence, Jacksons Row, Deansgate, Manchester M2 5WD.Tel: 0161-835 3536.