Ashley Davies, 20, is showing Sasha Monton, 19, how to fold fluffy white towels in the bright, modern bathroom of a hotel room at Wivenhoe House, an 18th-century Essex country-house hotel. He keeps making her giggle. "My students are also my friends," Davies says. "When I show them what to do and a few weeks later they can still remember how to do it properly, it's really rewarding."
Wivenhoe House is a restored Grade II-listed building, set in beautiful parkland in Colchester, Essex. It's like any country-house hotel, apart from a couple of anomalies: the house is situated within the grounds of the University of Essex and the staff consists mainly of keen 19- and 20-year-olds, eager to serve. This is because the four-star hotel is the location of the Edge Hotel School. The first of its kind in the country, the £10m project was set up by the independent education foundation Edge, the University of Essex and its academic partner Kaplan. It enables hotel and culinary management degree students to work and run a functioning, real-life hotel under the watchful gaze of the full-time staff.
Hotel schools are common overseas, but until now, the service industry hasn't been up to par with European standards of training, even though in the UK the hospitality industry is thriving. There is an abundance of jobs, but not enough people to fill them, especially at management levels, so UK businesses tend to recruit from these training schools abroad to fill the higher positions.
"The students tend to be kinesthetic learners," Stephen Mannock, the general manager, says. "In this industry, we don't have a job, we have a working life, so if you have someone that comes in with a purely theoretical basis on that, they won't understand they might sometimes need to pitch in where they're needed." The staff are trying to combat these Upstairs, Downstairs divisions by getting students to try their hand at every job in the hotel from the bottom rung to the very top.
"It's critical to be a pot-washer. Its the most critical job in the kitchen," Paul Boorman, the chef, says. "It makes them a better manager if they understand how that role works. When they get frustrated about not being able to chop carrots properly, it gives them an insight into the pressure people are under and when they become managers they will have an insight into what some of the lower-level staff are going through."
In the kitchen, Boorman shows how to make his unami salmon. We wear chef's whites and thoroughly disinfect our hands, then take chunky fillets and bathe them in Boorman's special unami seaweed and smoked-salt marinade, seal them in airtight bags and plunge them into a 40C bain-marie for 10 minutes. Then they're dunked into ice water to halt the cooking process and served with a licorice paste, pressed cucumber cubes, concentrated salmon cubes, fennel seeds and other complementary flavours.
It's a flavourful work of art, but that's not the real point of this cooking class. At each stage, Boorman highlights the safety regulations and procedures, pointing at the food hygiene regulations stuck to the walls. "We're not going to turn them into Heston Blumenthals, but they will know what precautions to take and what to look out for in the kitchen," he says. His teaching method is far more memorable than reading a manual, and the salmon tastes amazing.
Lionel La Chasseigne, the front-of-house manager at Wivenhoe who used to work at the Savoy, shows me some origami-like napkin-folding, then says: "A napkin on the lap is far more valuable. It gives you a chance, maybe just 20 seconds, to learn something about a customer. You can pick up information and they will be surprised later when you show them you know that it's their birthday, for instance. I used to do magic tricks when I was younger and its very similar. People don't realise how much they give away." Of course, this is not all just to be nice. If you call someone by their name, it raises the chance of them returning by 30 per cent. It's win-win.
Some guests might be put off by the idea the staff are in training, but Mannock rejects that. "Many people currently working in the service industry don't have the passion for it, they are forced into it, or they do it for money while studying for something else. Whereas what we have here is a group of people who really want to do it." The high level of service here isn't accompanied by the stuffiness and formality you often receive; the students retain their personalities and in doing so, put you at ease. Every waiter, housekeeper and bartender is attentive, friendly, well-informed and eager to help.
Ella Martin, 19, is on the first year of her foundation degree and part of the housekeeping team, learning about finance and room service. Each term is devoted to a different team and students cycle between them, she says. This year, Martin will complete levels one to three of the course, making her way through the junior levels of each of the hotel's team. "I didn't think I'd enjoy housekeeping, but it's really interesting. Every day is different," she says. Level four, which she will progress to next year, is devoted to "food and beverages", which includes waitressing, working on reception and taking bookings. At level five, Martin will be able to work as a supervisor and she will start showing the newer students how to do the tasks she is now doing, while reinforcing her own learning. The final level – level six – is management.
If awards are anything to go by, then the "learning-by-doing" approach seems to be working. Since opening in September 2012, the hotel has received four stars from the AA and its fine-dining restaurant has won two AA rosettes. The hospitality industry is watching the project and several manufacturers and suppliers have set up sponsorship agreements with the hotel. Reidel, the wine glass company, supplies all the glassware and Churchill, a British producer of china goods, supplies the hotel's crockery.
"We have the management trainees doing board reports on the new tea stand from Churchill and only once they are happy with the design will Churchill roll it out to the rest of the country. So it's a symbiotic relationship", Boorman says. Laurent Perrier sponsors the wine cellar, which doubles as a tasting room. The champagne producer has also offered a trip to its training and tasting centre in the champagne region of France for the student who shows the most promise.
Different hotel chains and industry suppliers sponsor the rooms – each of which has its own special character. The sponsored rooms are handy for funding, but have an educational purpose too – the hospitality students get to experience the style of different types of hotel under one roof – and tailor their service accordingly. For culinary-management students there is a brasserie and a fine-dining restaurant, so they can learn about formal and informal styles.
But the main objective is to produce students who can equal international standards. "Our job is to make a moment into a memory," La Chasseigne says. He's talking about the guests, but you get the sense that the students won't forget the experience either.
Have a nice stay: hotel courses
As well as Foundation degrees, both BA (Hons) in hotel management and BA (Hons) in culinary management, these subjects are available as
84 per cent of hotel-management students get a management-level job within six months after graduating.
Students receive five weeks' annual holiday and work at the hotel for five days in every seven. Extra paid shifts are available.
Student accommodation is available on the University of Essex campus and Edge hotel.
Only home and EU students are accepted due to working regulations.
Student loans are available for the courses.