Restaurant: Too many cooks?

Lunch at Mr Conran's school for chefs; The food served is a far cry from the gusty, Anglo-French hybrid that has become a Conran signature. I cannot imagine finding, say, `turban of lamb' in a Conran restaurant Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
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The Independent Culture
You want to become a chef. How do you learn to cook? You could teach yourself (Raymond Blanc did). You could go to catering college (Rick Stein did, and said it was pretty much a waste of time). You could take a lowly job in a series of restaurants and work your way up (Marco Pierre White did). Or, as of last November, you could enrol in the Butlers Wharf Chef School.

It seems to be part of the Conran empire, this new chef school, set in the middle of Sir Terence's "gastrodome" complex on the south bank of the Thames, just east of Tower Bridge. Yet it is actually a "company limited by guarantee", a charitable concern formed by Conran Restaurants, the London Docklands Development Corporation, the London Borough of Southwark, and the Hotel and Catering Training Company. It also has the support of the Bethnal Green City Challenge, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and three London Training and Enterprise Councils. Its aim is to "address the chronic shortage of skilled chefs and front- of-house personnel in the catering and hospitality industry" and to become "London's premier centre of professional cookery".

The focus of this "premier centre" is a teaching restaurant called the Apprentice. It is a long, narrow place fitted out by Conran's architects in baby blue and pink. This nursery theme must have been deliberate, and is saved from cloying absurdity by the lean, clean, canteen style of the place. Here the public may eat at pounds 15 to pounds 20 a head, cheaply by gastrodome standards. What staff lack in experience, they make up for in sweetness. (The genius is that mistakes seem endearing rather than irritating.) More about eating here later.

First, a look at how the place works. The director is John Roberts, who oversees a "floating" population of about 175 students. Floating, he explains, means basically that there is no set schedule to satisfying the curriculum. Timetables are arranged around the needs of students, some of whom are on leave from jobs in restaurants, others of whom do not have jobs and desperately want them. Yet, according to an outline of programmes and courses sent out by the school, there are certain minimum requirements. An Advanced Chef Diploma requires six months, a Restaurant Diploma nine. The reading really gets interesting when you come to the fees: these six- to nine-month courses cost pounds 5,000. How is an unemployed kid from Southwark supposed to afford this? He's not. According to Mr Roberts, places are sponsored. In other words, an employer or a council is paying.

So is this a good thing? I am not sure, and Mr Roberts is honest and dignified enough to admit that they are formulating the structure of the place as they go along. I, for one, trust him. He comes across as a committed professional, and his CV takes in jobs at the cream of British establishments - the Savoy, the Dorchester, the Hyatt Carlton and Le Caprice. I put it to him that traditionally young chefs learn to cook by working their way up through restaurant kitchens, for which they are paid, albeit small amounts, rather than charged for tuition. The Roux brothers alone, I pointed out, have trained the cream of British chefs in London, York, Belfast and Norwich without the help of London boroughs and enterprise schemes. "There is only one set of Roux brothers," he replied, "and there is a huge demand in the industry." When I argued that much of this demand resulted from a sudden overheating of the restaurant business due to new Conran- owned mega-restaurants such as Mezzo and Quaglino's, he insisted that the school will place chefs across the industry, with no favouritism shown to Conran establishments.

The distancing from Conran-oriented needs rings true enough when you eat in the Apprentice. The food served is a far cry from the gusty, Anglo- French hybrid that has become a Conran signature. I cannot imagine finding, say, "turban of lamb" in a Conran restaurant. Here, layers of sliced aubergine house a cooked dice of lamb, veg and herbs. It is moulded in a cappuccino cup and comes out as a symmetrical little mound. It's showy, a bit silly, and perfectly nice. That said, it may be the food of kings: the senior chef is Andy Sargent, formerly cook to King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan. I wonder if their highnesses dined on sardines cooked in black butter, an Apprentice dish that would benefit from rethinking. Oily fish in a butter sauce is not a treat.

Soups were a little better. Something called minestrone verde wasn't minestrone: it was made with broccoli and cabbage. Haricot bean soup with truffle oil was fine. "Roast truffle chicken" struck me as dinkier than good: bits of chicken cut into shapes, arranged with a nice parsnip and horseradish mash.

The puddings were hit and miss: banana fritters may hit with others; they miss with me. The vanilla ice-cream served with them, however, was very good. Baked lemon custard was too sweet, almost commercial-tasting. Chocolate mousse cake was good. The wines deserve a mention, for a short list is well chosen and keenly priced. A very lively young South African pinotage, which surprisingly tasted like a decent beaujolais, is served for pounds 8.50; for big spenders, there is a delicious Sicilian red, Rosso del Conte, for pounds 15.75.

It is tempting to applaud the Butlers Wharf Chef School. The name, dwelling on the word "chefs", fails to credit its strongest card: an excellent sense of style and courtesy in training front-of-house staff. And it is exciting to look through the plate glass window into the kitchen and see young cooks wearing their first sets of chef's whites; never mind that they are laying out strips of aubergine in cappuccino cups. As an overseer, John Roberts is impressive. Yet the rush to fill a void of skilled labour created by Conran mega-restaurants, strikes a troubling note. It is as if a hurriedly assembled, well-meaning committee is urgently trying to lay foundations for castles built in the sky

The Apprentice, Cardamom Building, 31 Shad Thames, SE1 (0171-234 0254). Vegetarian meals. Wheelchair access (also wc). Open Mon-Fri, lunch 12noon-1.30pm and dinner, 6.30-8.30pm. About pounds 15-20. Access, Visa