Apprentice boy

For whom do cookery schools cater? By Ben Rogers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Perhaps the single thing that would improve the quality of food we eat in this country would be a revolution in our catering schools. There are nearly 400 of these institutions across Britain, training more than 100,000 students at any one time. A tiny proportion manage to instil some love of food and drink into their charges. In the vast majority, however, cooking is taught as just another job - a dull and poorly paid one at that.

Rowley Leigh, chef at the admirable Kensington Place, puts the point delicately: "When people say to me that London is the restaurant capital of the world, I say that's bloody bollocks. There's no training, and you can't find skilled chefs who've been educated in this country. We take chefs from Australia, where they have an apprentice system, and, as recession bites, from Europe. With one or two exceptions, the schools are appalling."

If anyone wants a taste of what goes on in these places - and I suggest you trust me on this one - you could hardly do better than a visit to the Vincent Room, a large hall on London's Vincent Square, which could be a senior dining room in a hospital or college anywhere. It is, in fact, the restaurant attached to Westminster College's School of Hotel Catering, Travel and Tourism, and is manned, front of house and back, by the school's mainly teenage student body.

Martin Wagner, the head of the school, an enthusiastic, affable man, is keen to stress that he and his teachers make a great effort to keep up with current trends. I was eating alone, and, for no good reason, eschewed such up-to-the minute flavours as a grilled goat's cheese or the bruschetta with Mediterranean vegetables, in favour of an old-fashioned ham mousse. This proved to have a weirdly airy texture and absolutely no taste at all; in its way, it was Zen. My fillet of turbot, which tasted as if it had been frozen, came in a thin but tough coat of breadcrumbs and was accompanied by a sprinkling of finely diced vegetables and little disks of fried potatoes. I was then also offered roast potatoes and mashed potatoes, which, if I had accepted, would have been dropped on the artfully composed display. Plates of dessert, wheeled round on a trolley, are prepared to an identical recipe: something sweet sitting on a patterned cream base, albeit each base a different pattern. To be fair, the meal was not all bad: braised endives and bread rolls were artfully done. But these, unlike the rest, had no pretensions.

One has only to eat at the Vincent Room once to understand why, three years ago, Conran Restaurants, in partnership with Southwark Council, founded its Butler's Wharf Chef and Restaurant School. Here, too, they had the idea of attaching a restaurant to the school, and a very good idea it seems: students get to practise their skills, the kitchen gets free labour, and diners get (moderately) good value. In practice, of course, you, the diner, are something of a guinea-pig and it is probably best to avoid going too near the beginning of term. But even if it all goes terribly wrong, you can console yourself with the thought that it's better to be the victim of an apprentice chef than an apprentice hairdresser - or surgeon.

I'd been told that the cooking at The Apprentice (pictured) can be formulaic, and so it was. It's here that tomorrow's chefs learn to roast tomatoes, shave Parmesan, char-grill chicken, and bake cod. There's nothing wrong, however, with formulae in cooking - French bistro cooking, for instance, has its tried-and-tested repertoire. What matters is how the formulae are executed, and at The Apprentice, for the most part, they are executed well. True, our first courses were a little disappointing: a warm anchovy salad proved barely warm and rather tame, and a bowl of Jerusalem artichoke soup was, similarly, a little flat. Our main courses, too, were perhaps rather alike: my roast loin of lamb and my companion's wild duck both came on braised red cabbage (in my case, not advertised). Yet both were beautifully cooked, and both worked well with the bits and pieces (glazed shallots and beetroots in the case of the lamb, celeriac ravioli for the duck) that accompanied them.

Desserts, washed down with a couple of glasses of fresh, sweet Loire (Coteau du Layon) from a decent, workaday wine list, were unusually good. A plate of sorbets managed to capture the tangy essence of raspberry, mango and passion fruit, and a hot chocolate sponge turned out, sure enough, to be hot, but also unexpectedly rich and bitter. At the end, we agreed that we had eaten a good, and, at pounds 66 for two, a good-value meal. We left, moreover, with the bounce that comes from a clean conscience. "We would like to thank you," says a small note on the bottom f the menu, "for your vital contribution to our training." You're very welcome

The Apprentice, 31 Shad Thames, London, SE1 (0171-357-8442); all major cards; closed weekends; The Vincent Room, Westminster College, Vincent Square, London SW1 (0171-828-1222, ex 284), Mastercard and Visa; three-course lunch with coffee pounds 9.50, Mon-Fri, Dinner Tues and Thurs.

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