First, teach your trainee how to get out of bed

Jamie Oliver's role as chef-guru at Fifteen is not unique. Chris Arnot watches raw recruits at work in a hotel in Windermere

The waiter's hands are shaking. And either he's spent too long near the kitchen stove at the Trinity House Hotel or he's blushing. I suspect the latter. He is, after all, only 16 or 17 and this is his first night of trying to pour wine without spilling it. "Tonight's mystery course," he manages to blurt out, "is baked monkfish wrapped in Parma ham with a wild mushroom ... sorry, garlic sauce."

The waiter's hands are shaking. And either he's spent too long near the kitchen stove at the Trinity House Hotel or he's blushing. I suspect the latter. He is, after all, only 16 or 17 and this is his first night of trying to pour wine without spilling it. "Tonight's mystery course," he manages to blurt out, "is baked monkfish wrapped in Parma ham with a wild mushroom ... sorry, garlic sauce."

Well, it must be a bit off-putting to recite all this as one of those you're serving is scribbling in a small notebook. Not me, I hasten to add, but Neville Talbot, managing director of Trinity House and the four-star Lakeside Hotel, overlooking Windermere. Impeccably groomed, Mr Talbot has a well-clipped white beard, a military bearing and a way of looking over his specs in the manner of a strict headmaster. Only after a while in his company do you realise that there is also a mischievous and avuncular side to his nature.

He is as different from the celebrated chef Jamie Oliver as Westland Place, London, is from Ulverston, Cumbria, where the Trinity House is sited. Yet the two have one thing in common: an uncompromising demand for high standards. "I've been doing this for what seems like forever," says Mr Talbot, "and I know that demands of guests are becoming higher and higher." Meanwhile, he was also finding that the basic skills of would-be staff were becoming lower and lower.

More than two years ago, his company sought a radical remedy. They leased this Georgian former vicarage and transformed it into a hotel where they could train raw recruits under strict supervision. "And I mean absolutely raw recruits," says one of the directors, Clive Wilson, who says he was "delighted" when he saw young Master Oliver doing much the same thing with rather more publicity. "The way he was let down by people not turning up mirrored our experience exactly. One of the first lessons we have to teach trainees is how to get out of bed. Then it's how to eat while sitting round a table. Until they joined us, most had been reliant on takeaways. We send them to catering college twice a week but, before they learn to cook, they must learn to appreciate good food."

You might expect the Lake District to have a long tradition of service. But Ulverston is not as touristy as Keswick or Kendal. Geographically, it's closer to Barrow-in-Furness with its declining shipbuilding industry. For youngsters who can no longer guarantee following their fathers into the shipyards, the hotel business is an option offering less money but brighter long-term prospects. "We thought one or two of our trainees would head to London," says Mr Wilson, "but they don't seem to want to go." Well, Cumbria does have plenty to recommend it. Ulverston itself is a handsome market town with cobbled streets, a "World Peace" Buddhist-run vegetarian café and the splendid Laurel and Hardy Museum. Stan Laurel was born here in 1890 and I half expected a certain slapstick entertainment value to prevail in Trinity House's elegant restaurant.

As it turns out, though, there are no soup bowls upturned into laps. The waiters' every move is closely monitored by the front-of-house supervisor, Sarah Metcalfe. Behind the scenes, too, everything seems well ordered. Chef Duncan Collinge is not a screamer. He had enough of what he calls "roastings" when he worked for Albert Roux at Le Gavroche. "The kids today wouldn't tolerate it," he says. "Within two weeks of them starting, I know which ones are going to be strong enough to cope."

A couple can stay at Trinity House for £28 per person per night for two nights, including breakfast. Yes, £28. No wonder Ulverston locals pack the restaurant on weekend evenings when four courses, overseen by a chef of Collinge's pedigree, are available for £15.95. And no wonder Trinity House bills itself as "a four-star experience at two-star prices".

For the full four-star experience, with prices to match the setting, we moved on to the idyllic Lakeside Hotel. While my wife went off to be pampered by one of the beauty therapists, I sat on the lawn with a beer and a Caesar salad.

Reluctantly, I dragged myself away to meet Darren Anderson, 20, who has taken to cooking like a duck to Windermere. He joined the Trinity House training scheme at 18, after six months on the dole in Barrow. "I used to watch telly stuffing myself with burgers or fishfingers and chips," he recalled. "Now my ambition is to be head chef on a big cruise ship."

Holly Duncalf, 17, prefers to be front of house. We'd met her at Trinity House where she had insisted on carrying our bags. After a year's training, she was just making the transition to Lakeside. "When I first started, I thought there were two types of wine: red and white," she recalled. "And I once dropped a fruit salad all over that dining room floor. With cream."

Stan Laurel would have enjoyed that. Neville Talbot would have noted it down as an experience to learn from.

Trinity House, Ulverston, Cumbria (01229 588889). Lakeside Hotel, Newby Bridge, Lake Windermere (01539 530001). Until 1 October, weekend breaks at Lakeside are £195 per person, including full breakfast, plus dinner on Friday or Sunday night

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