Mick Cooper has spent the past four years battling Bulgarian bureaucracy in an attempt to set up a chef and restaurant school in the deprived area of Vidin. He speaks to Janet Harmer about his frustrations
What inspired you in the first place to set up a chef and restaurant school in Bulgaria?
During a visit to friends in Novo Selo in Vidin in 2008, my wife Christine and I came across the plight of youngsters living in a children's home. The place was sterile, dark and unwelcoming, and there was little hope of employment or a positive future for the children.
That single emotionally draining visit encouraged me to help give the youngsters a chance and inspire them to better things. At that point, I was head of one of the best hotel schools in the UK at City College Norwich and it seemed logical and straight forward to me to create a UK-style chef and restaurant school in the Vidin area.
At what stage is the development of the school?
We moved to Bulgaria in July 2008 and set up a charity, Phoenix Inspire, to develop a school. After the local mayor identified an old Russian restaurant in the village as a suitable venue, plans were drawn up by an architect. After paying the mayor's municipal 6,000 Bulgarian Lev (£2,500) to complete an application for European Union (EU) funding to redevelop the building, I later discovered that the municipality didn't own the building. We then found another building, but were then told it wasn't suitable.
At the end of 2010, the municipality then purchased the first building and ever since we have waited for the application to be submitted for EU funds. Now, we have just discovered that new EU regulations have come into force and more money is needed to complete the application. Phoenix Inspire does not have any more funds.
I have plans and some equipment, but the municipality has not assisted me and supporters of Phoenix Inspire.
How much will it cost to develop the school and how do you intend to raise the money?
It will cost €750,000 (£612,000) to redevelop the building and install suitable equipment. If the mayor was to apply for the funds he would receive 100% of EU funds. I need to raise 30% of this amount of money if I was to develop the building on my own.
Who will attend the school?
The two key groups are the children from the children's home and youngsters from this region. Other users may also include chefs from Vidin who wish to improve their skills.
How will the school improve the lives of the youngsters?
We have already begun improving the lives of the youngsters in the village, running cookery classes and English language lessons. The director of the children's home has said that the youngsters in the home are now more motivated and inspired because they know people care for them. The work of Phoenix Inspire has put hope and love into their hearts.
What are the biggest challenges you are facing in your endeavour?
There are many: the bureaucracy, which brings you to your knees at times; the bewildering lack of forward thinking, and the lack of funds and power to make things happen.
What keeps you motivated?
Despite the days when it seems as though I am banging my head against a brick wall, the youngsters keep me going. If nothing is done for them, a good number of girls will eventually become prostitutes and the boys will become beggars and thieves. Phoenix Inspire is the only charity which is preparing them for a better life. Friends and supporters also keep me motivated when times are tough, including ex-colleagues in education and those working in the industry. I have started down this path and I don't want to let the youngsters down.
How can people in the UK help?
Phoenix Inspire relies upon donations to enable me to run the weekly cookery classes. I'm also looking for industrial placements for my young chefs.
CV: Mick Cooper
â- 2008-present Director, Phoenix Inspire, Bulgaria
â- 2003-08 Head of Hotel School, City College, Norwich
â- 1986-03 Lecturer, senior lecturer, then curriculum manager, Grimsby College, Grimsby
â- 1986 Head chef, Gonville hotel, Cambridge
â- 1984-85 Head chef, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
â- 1982-84 Head chef, Clare College, Cambridge