The culinary academy's restaurant enables graduates to continue honing their skills beyond the classroom while keeping the Woking locals happy. Amanda Afiya reports
The Tante Marie Culinary Academy has come a long way since it was founded by cookery writer Iris Syrett in Woking in 1954. Named after Ann-Marie Taride, the author of the 1925 French culinary bible La Véritable Cuisine de Famille, it has played a huge role in the development of both domestic cooks and professionals chefs. Indeed, upward of 500 students graduate from its various courses each year.
But in all that time, Tante Marie hasn't moved that far geographically. Having originally opened its doors in leafy Woodham just outside Woking, last January the academy relocated to state-of-the-art premises in the heart of Woking's shopping and restaurant quarter, offering a 40-seat restaurant and outdoor pavement dining for 60 on the ground floor.
Managing director and principal Andrew Maxwell, who came on board with Tante Marie graduate and Absolute Taste founder and managing director Lyndy Redding in 2008 (along with Gordon Ramsay, although the Gordon Ramsay Group has recently sold its shares), says establishing a new location for the academy has been an important progression in the institution's history.
"For over 60 years, we've been creating this pool of talent. At the end of their course, the students want to get working as quickly as possible. Add to this the well-accepted point that learning benefits from real-world experience, and it is clear that opening the Restaurant
at Tante Marie was the right thing to do."
The front of house team comprises restaurant operations manager Marco Di Michele and assistant manager Alex Roberts. Di Michele previously ran his own family restaurant for 10 years and his industry experience and master's degree in hospitality management have proved invaluable to the restaurant.
"But more than anything, the customers love him," says Maxwell. "Great hospitality oozes out of him, and since this is what we are ultimately teaching the students, it makes him the ideal person to teach our graduate chefs."
As for the rest of the staff, they are all graduate chefs from the academy, and herein lies an important point: the Restaurant at Tante Marie is not marketed as a training restaurant, but as a graduates' restaurant. While students in the academy do stage in the seven-day-a-week operation, it is for experience. The Restaurant at Tante Marie is staffed by graduates.
"We have to compete with Woking - there are 12 other restaurants within 100 yards of us. What we offer is different, but we are competing with them for the same customers. Our customers expect high standards of our young chefs. The impact of social media means this is a very real challenge for them."
The core menu, which is largely modern European in style, changes quarterly, but the specials are what Maxwell calls "the beating heart of what we do", and so there are new dishes on the menu every day.
Having said that, twice-baked smoked haddock soufflé with mustard cream and scallops with carrot purée, fritters and crisps have been consistent favourites, contributing to ensure 400 covers are served each week.
"The students need to have the opportunity to learn, and part of that process is making mistakes," says Maxwell. "We allow that in the academy, but the restaurant gives them the valuable opportunity to experience the next step - executing the same skills under the pressure of an environment where mistakes are not an option. It provides them with an understanding that, ultimately, what they are learning is all about customer experience. It's all about great hospitality."
From the menu
Honey and cumin duck salad with white radish, cashew nuts and orange £8.50
Pumpkin squash soup with feta, vegetable crisps and white truffle oil £6.75
Roast chicken supreme, celeriac purée, cabbage, lardons, baby onions, straw potatoes and baby watercress £15.95
Roast fillet of beef with onion mash, curly kale, butternut squash horseradish fritter and red wine sauce £19.95
Winter vegetable crumble with kale and roast carrot £18.50
Paris-Brest with chocolate and coffee, toasted almonds £6.50
Vanilla panna cotta with berries and cinnamon pastry soldiers £6.50
The Restaurant at Tante Marie
59-61 Commercial Way, Woking GU21 6HN01483 724173www.tantemarierestaurant.co.uk
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