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Olympic sprint: Chinese chefs learn British cuisine

07 August 2008

The London Olympics may be a few years off, but one catering college in Hastings, East Sussex, has been cashing in on the Beijing games by teaching Chinese chefs the art of British cuisine. David Gerrie reports

Hastings College scored a diplomatic coup when it secured the contract to teach 400 chefs from China our national cuisine in order to feed British teams the stuff they know and love at this month's Beijing Olympics.

This was thanks primarily to the college having had the savvy to establish early relationships with the burgeoning superpower, thus ensuring its buoyant economy provided a boost for our training industry at a time when it was much-needed.

The Chinese chefs had just four days to learn how to cook up full Englishes and proper rib-sticking puddings for all our athletes competing in water-based events at the Quingdao Olympic Sailing Centre on China's east coast. And their training fees added a considerable cash injection to the college's £1.7m annual income derived from teaching international students.

Dressed in beautifully starched chefs' whites with ornate gold dragons embroidered on their chests, the eager male and female students had been hand-picked by their government from top restaurants and hotels.

Some had even abandoned their jobs back home, hoping the Olympic ideal of rising to ever-greater heights with no regard to international borders was not reserved exclusively for sportsmen. And, of course, there's always the chance they'll be able to command higher salaries post-games, since the certificate they received after their brief Hastings course is highly regarded back home.

None of them spoke a word of English and, until their full-time interpreter arrived, these duties were undertaken by a young Chinese student studying English and business at Hastings. Despite this, only 36 hours after landing, they were serving up perfect breakfasts of eggs Benedict and eggs florentine on home-made muffins.

The catering department is no stranger to foreign intakes, but these latest arrivals proved a challenge for even its most case-hardened teachers.

"One big hurdle is in the different ways way we butcher our meat," says Bruce McFarlane, curriculum leader for hospitality and catering at the college. "You show them how to bone out a leg of lamb and they stand there in wonderment."

Their concepts of timing can also prove problematic, says Yanbine Hao, a director at Chinese training provider Rosun International Management, who was instrumental in arranging this unique experiment.

"In China, most dishes are expected to be prepared, cooked and served within 20 or 30 minutes, whereas in Britain it is not unusual for a chef to spend three or four hours bringing a dish together from start to finish," he says.

"Also, many of our chefs initially find British cuisine rather bland, with a fraction of the spicing we tend to use and a smaller variety of basic ingredients."

"The trick is to teach basic techniques, which they can hopefully add to their existing skills," says McFarlane. "So if we show them how to make potatoes duchesse, they become used to the idea of piping food out of a bag."

"Speed is also an important issue," adds lecturer Jonathan Emerson. "We had to slow them down, because they're used to cooking at 100mph, and with all our prep and saucing, we take more time about the way we do things."

For the Chinese chefs those things included fish pie, toad-in-the-hole, steak Diane, chicken chasseur and even good old fish and chips, which they also learnt to make tartare sauce to go with.

"We had done a lot of work establishing firm contacts with China, and particularly the government in Beijing," says Sue Middlehurst, the college's principal. "In turn, they approached us to see if we would be interested in co-ordinating this course."

The Beijing government has mandated that each of the restaurants at the various Olympic venues have some experience of cooking British dishes.

"It was quite an investment on their part," says Middlehurst. "In addition to our course fees, they had to pay for their flights and find them somewhere to live while they were over here.

"It was a very intense course. They literally flew in, learnt to cook and flew back home again. They were dreadfully polite, completely focused and not afraid to ask questions."

When asked if the in-at-the-deep-end approach of the college made him tired, one student replied: "I don't have time to be tired. I came here to learn to cook, and that is what I am doing.'"

One of the students, Ming Gan Han, 46, had spent the past 20 years working at the same restaurant in China and had never seen or eaten Western food.

"I hope to return to China and be able to serve my friends and family dishes I have learnt to cook over here," he said. "It was a great honour to be selected by my government, and learning to cook in this different way is a very special opportunity for me."

"The connection between ourselves and the Beijing Olympics was made by our Chinese project manager, Robin Fahey, who was way ahead of other English colleges when it came to realising establishing links with China was the way forward," explains McFarlane.

"He got right in there before anyone else even had a whiff of the potential which lay there, and has developed extremely strong links with important decision-makers.

"The recent intake had knife skills second to none, but we needed to give them a European slant. We had to stop them from always wanting to carve carrots into pretty shapes and that sort of thing. We had to take them through the various English cuts of meat and our approach to fishmongery.

"They're not used to roasting in general and certainly not whole parts of the animal, like leg of lamb or rib of beef."

Filleting fish was another first for the students, as fish are usually cooked whole in China and desserts proved to be another major challenge as they were given a grounding in techniques such as baking.

The main thrust was to show them the European style of serving food and how it should be seasoned. The sort of things British chefs take for granted needed to be stripped back to their basics so they could understand them.

"After we'd taken them through several classic sauces, they proved just how clever they were by going away and replicating exactly what we'd shown them - but without necessarily sticking to doing things the way we'd taught them," says McFarlane.

"They had this amazing ability to improvise and adapt, yet still produce perfect finished results. They were finding a different route which they felt comfortable with to get them to the same final point."

"I believe they were more receptive as a result of being taken out of their normal environment," concludes McFarlane. "Their senses were heightened, because they were a long way outside their usual comfort zone."

HIT Scotland reverses the flow

"Our scholarship programme has been an unbelievable success," says David Cochrane, chief executive of the Hospitality Industry Trust, of its scheme to send students abroad.

"When it started, three years ago, we awarded eight scholarships. This year, that figure is 191 and worth a total of about £1m. So far this year we've sent three scholars to New York's Cornell University, 36 to the international hotel school in Lausanne, one to the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, 12 to the Disney Institute in Florida, four to the Jumeirah International group in Dubai and a handful to a Michelin-starred restaurant in Amsterdam.

"We run eight fundraising events a year with a view to promoting emerging talent. The scholars range in age from 18 to 55, but are predominantly under 30 and don't have to be from a managerial level. They could be craft chefs or from visitor attractions or the licensed trade. We interview people in January and make the awards in February.

"The feedback we get from the scholars is fantastic, with phrases like ‘life-changing' quite common, and their bosses are thrilled with the results. They get a motivated person, it helps their training and development budget, is a motivator for the department and they can use it as a PR and marketing tool. Scholars are often promoted or move to bigger organisations. It is truly the industry helping itself."

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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