If a careers officer was tasked with encouraging school leavers to take up cheffing, the man or woman charged with the promotion of this particular profession would not have the easiest of jobs. To be a chef is to sacrifice elements of your health and your relationships. The hours are long, the conditions hot and hectic, and for all this it is an understatement to say that the wages are nothing to shout about. Those who have never worked in a kitchen, at the restaurant’s coal face, would be surprised to learn that as a chef one actually eats rather poorly, despite being surrounded by food. What a chef does manage to pick at during busy services is usually calorific and innutritious. Friends of my partner know very well what she thinks of my current profession. If your spouse decides to start a career as a chef, prepare to see a lot less of each other. I’m really selling it to you aren’t I?
However, my introduction belies the sentiment of this month’s column. While the above is all true, the world of work elsewhere is also tough and can often be unfulfilling and tedious. This is not the case in the kitchens. Hard work means glowing customers and a real sense of satisfaction. To learn to cook to a high level is to study an art form. Furthermore, you never stop learning – the endless ingredients and techniques that form the world of cuisine mean that there is always more to learn, to practise and to master. So if a young person has potential and a passion for food, the life of the chef will certainly be rewarding and worthwhile. Meanwhile, for the broader good, I think chefs make the world a better place. Food brings people together and gives great pleasure. While food’s basic function for humanity is survival, eating well in the process certainly makes us a happier lot. The elevation and expansion of food culture in society is only ever positive. So I say let’s do what we can to encourage young people to cook.
When Oxford and Cherwell Valley College’s chef lecturer contacted me about visiting their restaurant, run by young apprentices, I did not need to be asked twice. I was keen to see what the next generation of chefs could do and maybe help publicise a project that is invaluable to the training of young cooks. The Waterside Restaurant, on campus at OCVC, opens its doors to the public to give their trainee chefs the opportunity to work in a real restaurant environment.
Theme evenings are offered on Thursday nights, and I was invited to a Valentine ’s Day dinner in early February. My partner was more than happy to come along and I am pleased to report that we had a very enjoyable evening. Four courses of good food were laid on, with some reasonably priced but surprisingly elegant reds and whites available on the wine list. OCVC trains both kitchen staff and front of house, and as we awaited our food, looking around I was impressed by the eagerness and dedication with which the students were going about their tasks. A young barman scrupulously examining each of his wine glasses, tilted them up to the light to check for blemishes, while waiting staff scurried around ensuring the contentment of their customers. The food itself exceeded my expectations, displaying a wealth of techniques and a keen chef’s palate. After a tasty canapé of salmon mousse with a parmesan crisp and a rich mushroom soup came a well balanced starter of herb-crusted mackerel and roasted cherry tomatoes – this dish was the star of the show. For the main we were given a stuffed leg of lamb with a balsamic sauce and mash. Seasoning is everything in cooking, and I was impressed by how perfectly everything was salted and spiced, I would not have expected this of young catering students. A strawberry and white chocolate cheesecake was a fine end to the meal, although I was a little perplexed by the choice of a pink grapefruit sorbet as a pairing; not the ideal combination but in terms of technical execution, the sorbet was, like almost everything else on the menu, faultless.
Chef lecturer Thomas Clavier seems to be a doing a sterling job at OCVC, but he told me that he needs more customers. “We average about twenty covers and this is a problem, we need more people to push the students harder” he said. With six chefs in the kitchen the restaurant needs to be serving a lot more food than that if they are to get a taste of real restaurant life, and it is important that Oxford locals give the young chefs the opportunity to train. With three flavoursome courses of adeptly cooked restaurant food for £17.50, you will be getting excellent value while helping talented apprentices in the process.
This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian on February 23, 2012