When sir's a chef: famous Devon chefs share their culinary skills
PUBLISHED: 09:32 15 November 2016
Devon's A-list chefs are also familiar faces in the county's colleges and schools, as Catherine Courtenay discovers
It was a few years ago, while sitting over a cup of coffee at Sidford’s Salty Monk restaurant with its owner Andy Witheridge, that I first became aware of how much chefs care about nurturing young culinary talent – and the lengths to which some of them go to help. Andy had described to me how, about four years ago, a young girl from The King’s School at Ottery St Mary had impressed Michael Caines with her knife skills. “He asked, ‘Where did you learn to fillet fish like that?’, and she replied, ‘At school’.”
Andy’s admiration and excitement for what the GCSE pupil had achieved was clear to see as he relayed the tale – a feeling no doubt shared by Michael Caines. The Salty Monk and King’s School has a partnership which is unusual, in that it involves secondary school age children, but it clearly has been an astounding success – no less than four out of the last five South West Junior Chefs of the Year have come from King’s.
It began when Andy and his wife Annette were invited to a restaurant-style dinner at the school following a visit by Andy to give a cookery demonstration.
“We were blown away by what they did, and what impressed us most was seeing the headmistress washing up at 10pm at night!” They were so taken with the dedication of both pupils and staff, they decided to offer the use of the Salty Monk, so they could host the event in a real restaurant. That was five years ago, and it’s happened every year since. The children do everything, from devising dishes and creating menus, to cooking, serving – and washing up.
“And there’s no short cuts,” says Andy. “If they want scallops on the menu they come in their shells; the biscuits for cheese and biscuits, they make themselves. There are no packets and there’s no frozen produce.”
Andy credits the school’s cookery teacher Deborah Capon who clearly shares the Witheridges’ passion for teaching culinary skills – the children start learning at the age of 11. Of course it also means The Salty Monk is never short of apprentices. Mark Dodson at the Michelin-starred Masons Arms shares Andy’s pro active approach, saying there’s no point chefs complaining about the numbers and quality of students coming through catering college, unless they are prepared to step in and help. Which is why, just after taking on the Knowstone pub in 2005, he approached Petroc in Barnstaple. “You’ve got to do something to make it better, to give your input and it’s very good to build up a rapport with a college.”
Mark gives demos, he takes students on placement and he judges its Chef of the Year award. “Out of my four staff, three are from Petroc,” he says, “and I’m still in touch with the ex students who’ve been here and left.
“In this day and age everyone wants to be top of the game at 23, but the more knowledge you’ve got, the better. At college it’s not real life and it’s difficult to get students to understand the job. Our job is to encourage, to offer advice and to make sure what they’re learning is still relevant because it’s constantly changing.”
In 2011 South Devon College approached chef Mitch Tonks about getting involved with their catering courses.
“I saw this as a great opportunity to help people just coming into the industry. We named it the Mitch Tonks Seafood academy and we hold regular dinners through the year at the college which act as an interface between education and our industry locally.”
Having a relationship with a celebrity chef also leads to some added surprises, like Mark Hix turning up to work with his friend Mitch alongside the hospitality and catering students for the annual gala dinner evening.
For Mitch, it’s also a way he can pass on a message about food sustainability. “It is a great platform for me to communicate my love of seafood to the next generation of young people coming into the industry, especially on complex matters such as sustainability and the future of seafood.”
Two other chefs who clearly take huge delight in training young people in the industry are Chris and James Tanner, whose association with City College Plymouth goes back ten years.
“It’s a naturally evolving relationship,” says Chris, “We visit the college as often as we can. We have judged numerous competitions, provided mentoring sessions, demonstrations and have also organised charity events and tasting evenings. We have also been involved in employment forums with the colleges.”
The Tanners share Mark Dodson’s enjoyment of seeing the students develop and their longstanding connection means they have numerous success stories to relay. They can reel off a list of names of former college apprentices who’ve gone on to further their careers - at Gidleigh Park, The Elephant, Lucknam Park and The Manor House at Castle Combe.
“It has been fantastic to watch them grow and cements the fact we started them off on the right path. That’s the best bit,” says Chris.
The brothers have even helped provide teaching staff, like richard farleigh, a Tanners restaurant veteran of six years, and hospitality and catering lecturer Jenny McDonough, who was previously assistant manager at the Tanners’ Barbican Kitchen.
“My time with them definitely gave me the opportunity to upskill and was a catalyst for fine-tuning my service skills,” she says before recalling, “One of the highlights was working with them in the VIP tent on Armed Forces Day, serving David Cameron and Prince Edward.”
Another lecturer, Emmalene Massey, says: “I first started working at the Barbican Kitchen when I was studying for a Diploma in Professional Cookery. I worked for them part-time as a commis chef and went full-time after completing my course. I learnt so much and picked up some great skills in organisation and prioritising. It was a very fast-paced environment and my experience really lifted my skills to a higher level of service.”
Raising standards is another common factor in these chefs’ motivations. It’s all about the importance of passing on “the classics” as regards skills and techniques, says Chris. “Chefs can buy pre packed steaks, they can have bought-in desserts, but they need the classics to move forward.”
James puts it even more succinctly when he says: “Cooking should be more of an important part of their education. It’s a life skill, a basic life skill.”