Updated: Feb 7
My start at catering college was a bit of a jolt, as I did just three to four weeks (or what felt like that) at Bletchley College, only to find out that my Mum was on the move again. She was off to Devon – a little village in north Devon called Coombe Martin. She had bought a house on the beach, a café, deck chair and rowing boat hire business in one fell swoop. Blow ins indeed!
So off I go to North Devon Technical College in Barnstaple to study City & Guilds Professional Catering for the Hospitality Industry: an hour’s bus journey from Coombe Martin. At weekends I made bucket loads of scones for the café. Those early training days came in handy, thanks Mum! I also hired out deck chairs and rowing boats and was head tea tray carrier and pot washer.
The wooden café was a real stuck-in-time gem. Tea was served on aluminium trays with real teapots and teacups. There was a great big metal polished water boiler and a Horlicks machine. Milk shakes were served in the aluminium cups they were made in. It was like a scene in the café in Brief Encounters, but without the brewing relationship. However, drama there still was, as the café was very sadly completely destroyed in a massive storm – literally swept out to sea, as me and Mum watched on. Quite horrific.
As for college, I think I had lucky escape from Bletchley and the training and skills I gained at Barnstaple stay with me to this day. I was lucky enough to have what seemed to be the last batch of truly skilled lecturers. Manfred Mesurat was a giant of chef from Germany. Knife skills and sauce work were his speciality. I think everyone was so scared of him, we always wanted to get things right. I remember though, he had a little wink and sparkle in his eye to remind you that his heart wasn’t completely made of sharpened steel.
The course taught you everything you needed to know for a potential career in hospitality. This meant I also studied housekeeping: yes, housekeeping! Thanks to Mrs Popham, I learnt how to make a bed, but I certainly didn’t want a career in housekeeping. Front of house was not for me either, sorry Mr Wheeler. While I learnt how to make crêpes suzette at the table and peel an apple for a customer using a fork and knife with white gloves on (yes, true), Mr Wheeler could not really get over my black spikey hair in the restaurant.
But back in the kitchen with the boys, my hair was hidden inside my chef’s hat, quite well actually. But that wasn’t the reason I chose the kitchen. The kitchen was where my heart was. During the two years of training, we did pastry work, bread, butchery, making stock and so much more. And while we didn’t do anything ‘modern’ by today’s standards like with foams, gels and sous vide, the classical training left me with the ability to make or cook anything. I often chortle at the skills challenge on Master Chef when they say, ‘Make choux pastry’ and you can see the look of fear in the young chef’s eyes.
Like all good training when you learn skills over an extended period of time, they never leave you. We had two training restaurants: one for the first years and one for the second years. Every week we got to reinforce what we had learnt by cooking for paying customers, preparing us for the real rigours of service. You were taught how to work in the team (the brigade), the importance of mise en place (everything in its place) and speed.
And at night during my college years, I worked with head chef Terry at Sandy Cove Hotel. We would cook lobsters with thermidor sauce to order. I have to this day never seen so many lobsters pass through my hands as they did then, when the appetite for fresh lobster was immense.
Devon was rather a culinary desert at the time with a few shining lights: The Carved Angel (dearest Joyce Molyneux), The Horn of Plenty (Sonia Stevenson) and Gidleigh Park to name a few. These restaurants were out of reach to me in terms of work placement possibilities (although by now I had a motorbike) but college had a long-standing relationship with the north Devon Brend Hotels group. By now I was surfing regularly, so I plumped to go to Saunton Sands Hotel so I could carry on surfing, stay in staff accommodation and have a good summer before my final exams and then beginning my real working life.
Oh and the mohair jumper! Well, during my course, I fell in love with a girl called Sophie and would moon at her across the refectory canteen. She was on another course and had eyes for another student, who played in a local band. Ever hopeful, when I did pluck up courage to talk to her, she said, ‘I love your jumper, can I try it on?’ I never saw my glorious mohair jumper again, nor did I steal a kiss, and she went out with the boy from the band. By the way Sophie, if you ever read this, I do still want my jumper back (but no need now for the kisses).
Next chapter, working life as a Chef: the early years…