Kitchen converts

18 June 2004
Kitchen converts

As with all restaurant openings, the first few weeks of the Hoxton Apprentice have been "agony". Prue Leith, its trustee, lists the problems that have beset the new restaurant venture from the charity Training for Life so far, including a delayed opening and the absence of two training chefs through ill health, combined with an impeccably timed visit from London's Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler.

Add the large amount of media attention heaped on the project and the pressure is on both apprentices and trainers. Leith hasn't stopped either, eating at the 100-seat restaurant in London about three times a week and spending time in the kitchen to improve the food, while dealing with the press and potential sponsors.

The hard work is paying off, though. As journalists and photographers jostle waiting staff and clientele on a daily basis, the restaurant appears to be a hit. It's doing about 100 covers a day (with only 70 seats currently open), while reviews from Time Out's Marina O'Loughlin, the Independent's Tracey MacLeod and Nick Lander of the Financial Times have been overwhelmingly positive.

"The apprentices have been amazing," Leith says. "They've really responded to the pressure. They were shy at first and service was slow, but now their natural friendliness is coming through. I imagined they'd be difficult at first - we all watched Jamie struggle with his trainees - but not at all."

The Hoxton Apprentice is the culmination of several years' work, predating Jamie Oliver's Fifteen scheme, and the first in a series of Restaurants for Life, all going well. It aims to combine high-quality dining with training for disadvantaged people from local communities. Finance comes from the Government and key private-sector sponsors - Whitbread and Compass Group to name a few - while numerous gifts have come from industry suppliers.

About 48 apprentices a year are to be trained in the restaurant, 12 every three months. Each trainee is paid by the Government for six months to undertake a six-week "life skills" course, before moving to the restaurant to do a month each in the kitchen, bar and front of house. That's followed by a six-week NVQ course in the area of their choice. Training for Life's contacts and sponsors help each apprentice with placements and a job afterwards, while profits from the restaurant are ploughed back into the project.

"What we are trying to do is to give people a positive taste of the industry in a good restaurant where they are properly treated," says Leith. "Now our task is to turn out thoroughly trained, reliable people who won't get sacked when they get another job."

It's not the first time Leith has been behind this sort of thing, of course. In 1997 she set up the Odd Plate in South Africa, a working restaurant attached to a college - and she's just as involved with the Hoxton scheme. She designed a menu that head chef Ben Carpenter and the trainees could handle, and which would appeal to a Hoxton audience. Dishes come in two sizes, priced from £4 to £12, and include Cambodian salad of crab, prawns, pomegranate and coconut; organic pork and thyme sausages with mash and onion marmalade; and grilled pineapple, green chilli and coconut ice.

The restaurant is a commerical venture, its aim to offer high-quality food, presented well and served with professionalism while making a profit. A challenge for most restaurants, but even more so when 30% of the staff are former long-term unemployed and homeless individuals with only four months' training under their belts. Hell's Kitchen on a grand scale, you might say, yet members of the training team agree the students' progress so far has been surprisingly rapid.

Restaurant manager Paula Lyons says the training put together by herself, apprentice manager Susanne Grant and the Training for Life foundation means each trainee gets a good understanding of every aspect of a restaurant. By doing a month each in the kitchen, bar and front of house, they understand how the team should work together and the pressures involved.

"The apprentices are counted as full members of staff, not put in a corner peeling potatoes," says trainer and sous chef Jodie Da Pascali. "Although they get lots of training from visiting chefs as well as the professional chefs working alongside them, they're relied upon very quickly. On the last few days of the first month I watched apprentices heading up their own sections and it was awesome. I just let them go, and they were great. And they were so thrilled with what they achieved."

Lyons has had a similar experience front of house. "Everyone thought this was going to be much harder work, but the trainees are so keen to work that their confidence has grown very quickly," she says.

"It's because they aren't treated like spare parts. In the kitchen they have their own sections to run and they know the food they're sending out is being prepared by them only. Front of house they're running their own sections. Yesterday I was watching one of our apprentices, Andrew, explaining the menu with such confidence and realised he'd already understood the concept of upselling."

Much of the success of the training is down to the six-week Blueprint programme, where apprentices receive life training before going into the restaurant. Here they're trained to deal with issues associated with long-term unemployment, such as timekeeping, budgeting and how to open a bank account.

"It helps to build confidence, which isn't high for most people, and it works," says Grant. "We've only had one guy who didn't work out, but apart from him, we haven't lost anyone. We've been lucky."

So far, so good, then; but can the Hoxton Apprentice survive where others [Butler's Wharf, for instance] have failed? Leith says the charity still needs to chase funding, through sponsorship and supplier deals for instance, but admits it's the restaurant that must make money in order for the scheme to survive.

"It's vital to make money because if we don't it will be a disaster," she says. "But we're already ahead of budget and I don't have any doubts. I ate at the restaurant last week and the service and food were absolutely perfect."

The apprentices

Anita Rowlands, 18
I got the job through the Working Links agency. I'd been unemployed for a while, so the people at the agency sent in my CV. I got a phone call, did the interview and was accepted.

I'd never worked in catering before, but I wanted to try something different, and I always thought I'd like to work in a bar.

I've done a month working on the bar now and I really liked it. There are two professionals working with me who explain everything well - stuff about cocktail mixing and wine - and we've had professionals in to show us how to mix drinks.

Now I'm on the floor. I like meeting people and serving them, but I think the rest of the job is hard. I don't like scraping people's plates or clearing the tables much. I'm in the kitchen next but I don't think I'll be any good. It's too hot in there.

When I finish this course I would definitely like to go and work behind a bar, or run a bar in a nightclub. In five years' time I'd want to own my own bar, not just work in one.

I don't really know what I want to do in the future, because I'm only 18, but I will stick at this. It's a great scheme and there isn't anything else like this around.

Leon Seraphin, 24
I'd been unemployed for about three years when I saw a leaflet about this place in the Access to Employment office. I was interested because I've worked in kitchens before, but only ever as a catering assistant. I was never offered training.

I've always wanted to be a chef. I auditioned for the Jamie Oliver programme but I didn't get in. I couldn't go to college to do NVQs, because I would lose my benefits, and I live alone.

The JobCentre sends you on courses all the time, but most of the time they come to nothing. I wondered if this course was worth my while, especially when there was the delay in opening.

When I started in the kitchen here it was hands-on immediately. One day we would be doing the grill, or vegetables or the desserts. I have learnt a lot. I'd never eaten a steak or fish that wasn't fried before a couple of months ago.

I really enjoyed working in the kitchen. The pressure in the kitchen is mad sometimes, but I know it's always pressured, so I'm not scared about going to work for somewhere else after this.

I want to go somewhere where I can continue to get trained up, not just become another catering assistant.

I'd like to own my own multicultural restaurant in Hackney one day. Hackney has a bad problem with eating places, because people there just eat because they have to. The place is full of take-away places - too many chicken shops. I'd like to open somewhere with good, fresh food and good service.

Or I'd like to work in contract catering. We did a placement, and I loved the change and variety. Each day was different, and the hours are better, which would be good because I have a four-month-old daughter.

Chris Dean Victor Allick, 22
I found out about the Hoxton Apprentice through the hostel where I was living. I'd been doing agency work, cash-in-hand stuff, and working on my own music, but I wanted to decide on what to do with my life. I have some NVQs already but wanted to brush up on my skills.

I went to catering college in Lewisham when I left school, because my grades weren't good enough to do anything else, and ended up enjoying it.

I decided to go back to catering. I wanted to work in the kitchen at first, but now I'm here I enjoy all the areas and am starting to think I might want to work on the bar. Waiting is OK, but I don't think it's something I could do for a living. In the kitchen I enjoy the pastry side a lot - designing, making things look good on the plate and spending time on presentation.

We've learnt a lot in the kitchen. We get a lot of professional chefs in the kitchen, and it's useful even watching them peel potatoes.

The hardest part about the job for me was my timekeeping. I can do the work, but I found it hard waking up. I realised I had to cut out a lot of stuff I used to do if I really want to do this.

I'm glad I came, and I am going to make a career of it. I just needed that push. By the end of this course I will be a chef, and in five years' time I'd like to own my own place.

Shuang Wang, 30
I came to the UK from China four years ago. I worked in a Chinese restaurant for two-and-a-half years but then left that and ended up being unemployed for a year. I found the leaflet about Hoxton Apprentice in the JobCentre.

We went on the Blueprint programme first, which helped us all sort out our problems and our lives. Before I went on Blueprint I got angry easily and also very stressed.

After the training I felt my mind was more open. I've learnt a lot from it, and I feel very lucky to be here.

The first month in the restaurant I was on the floor, and now I'm in the kitchen. I never thought I'd become a chef, but now I've done the chef training I can't decide what I want to do my NVQ in. I like front of house, too.

The training has been so good. This scheme helps you find a future. Now I have more confidence about the future and my life, and I've improved my English, too.

We're like a family. It's a great project.

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