Prue, Jamie and the battle of the chefs' apprentices

Following Jamie Oliver's example, the Government this week opens the first of a dozen restaurants in London where the long-term unemployed can be trained in haute cuisine. By Nicholas Pyke
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The Independent Online

John Prescott is yet to make a booking at the up-market Hoxton Apprentice. The Deputy Prime Minister is better known for sorties to his favourite Chinese restaurant in Hull than to London brasseries serving marinated olives and white bean salad.

But Mr Prescott is expected, and at some point in the next few days the phone will ring and the Jaguar readied.

The trendy new restaurant could change the face of British catering when it opens on Tuesday, and the Labour politician is restaurateur-in-chief.

His department has paid £500,000 to set up the Hoxton Apprentice, the first in a series of government-funded eateries which, following the example of Jamie Oliver, will take the long-term unemployed and turn them into chefs.

Already there are plans for up to a dozen "Restaurants for Life" in the capital, with local authorities around the country expressing interest too.

The menu has been designed by Prue Leith OBE, the grande dame of British catering, who believes the new chain could transform the restaurant trade by re-establishing the principle of the old-fashioned kitchen apprenticeship.

Ms Leith, a trustee of the Training for Life charity, which runs the restaurant, has already spoken out against "kick-ass" kitchen-management techniques. Now, on the eve of the restaurant's launch, she has attacked Britain's training record too, saying that catering courses are so badly funded that students have to work with plastic models in lecture halls instead of real food in kitchens.

She said that training colleges should only get government money if they link up with top-notch restaurants, whether the Hoxton Apprentice or the Savoy.

The new restaurant has already changed the prospects of the first 11 recruits from the local area. All of them were long-term unemployed and, according to the head chef, Ben Carpenter, some had never tasted basic foods such as chicken before. Some were homeless or sleeping in hostels, while others are at risk of homelessness. Some have missed out on education altogether.

Yet on Tuesday they will be helping to cook and serve a menu that includes Cambodian salad of crab, prawns and pomegranate (£7 for a main course) and coconut and Gloucester old spot pork ribs with honey, soy and garlic (£9).

There is no escaping comparisons with Jamie Oliver, whose Fifteen restaurant, just around the corner, starred in the television documentary Jamie's Kitchen about the 15 unemployed young adults taken on as staff.

But some of the comparisons are favourable, even though he got there first. A meal at Fifteen costs roughly twice the price of the brasserie food available at the Hoxton Apprentice. And while Fifteen will work with a small number of dedicated trainee chefs, the Hoxton Apprentice aims to get more than 300 people a year into the workforce. The restaurant is also part of a general employment skills centre which, supported by the New Deal for Communities fund, offers a range of educational courses and help for small businesses.

As Jamie Oliver discovered, years of unemployment can make life hard in the kitchen. "The minute you say anything to them they think they are being dissed," said Ms Leith. "It takes them a while to realise that they have to turn up on time." One woman had panic attacks. Another student has gone for anger-management training before he will be allowed back.

Ian Paul, 36, had been without work for 18 months before the Hoxton Apprentice gave him a chance. It has already had a galvanising effect. "Before I was working at the restaurant, if I had an appointment at 9am I'd get there at 9.15 or 9.30," he said. "Now I'll get in at 8.30 to get there on time."

The restaurant, housed in a listed former primary school designed by Pugin, has been serving food on a practice basis for the last few days.

Peter Harden, co-director of Harden's restaurant guides, said: "If you're in the area, it's worth a try. It's early days and prices are reasonable - with an introductory discount - all of which helps disarm criticism. This is in contrast to Fifteen where some who report for our guide think prices, even despite the place's higher ambitions, are ludicrous."

Despite an apparent glut of new restaurants, the country remains short of home-grown catering staff, the result of poor-quality training and poor working conditions. According to a recent study by Manchester Metropolitan University, there are 15,000 vacancies for chefs and most trainees leave the trade before they are 20.

"The problem with our industry is that there's so little money," said Ms Leith. "The Government pays £3,000 to a college to train them to be a chef, but £6,000 to be a manager. You can teach 40 managers at a time. To teach chefs you need one to eight, or one to 10 at most.

"The result is they hardly get any cooking at college. I recently saw a teacher giving a shellfish lecture and holding up plastic models of lobsters and crabs. They have to use models or show them on a computer: 63 per cent of catering college students drop out during their course and 60 per cent of those that finish face years of unemployment. We're spending a fortune failing to train people. It would be far better to spend more money training fewer of them.

"Every single catering college in this country has got vacancies. That's because students aren't stupid. They don't want to go to a course that doesn't get them anywhere," she said.