A local haven: Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st February 2014
Put yourself in the situation: it’s the middle of a busy, 160-cover service. Your section is being hit hard. You’re up the wall; the heat is rising; tempers are starting to fray… Now imagine the same situation but you have an apprentice beside you who you have to give constant one-to-one training. Now imagine that apprentice has come from a deprived or criminal background, has had issues with family or drugs, run ins with the police or even prison sentences, anger management issues... At Fifteen Cornwall this isn’t just an imaginary exercise but the reality of day to day life in the kitchen.

The apprenticeship

Part of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen group, Fifteen Cornwall was founded in 2006 as a social enterprise with all profits going back into funding the restaurant and training programme. The restaurant takes on 15-20 apprentices each year for an intensive 16-month course. The trainees are all local and come from out-of-work, deprived or problem backgrounds. According to the CEO of Fifteen Cornwall, Matthew Thomson: “We only take people who are out of work, unskilled and unqualified but they get extra consideration for deprivation, mental health issues, violence etcetera. A third of the guys who come here have an offending behaviour background and may have been in custody.” From an initial pool of applicants, interviews and taste tests are conducted. Around half are then invited to a two-day ‘boot camp’, followed by a three-month VRQ level 1 in Professional Cooking at a local college, where they are closely monitored. “We’re looking for people who actively want to do it, who care a bit about food and we’re looking for staying power,” says Matthew. The ‘cohort’ of 15-20 apprentices, or ‘white hats’, who are eventually taken on face an intense 50-hour working week at a 120-cover restaurant serving top quality food seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At the same time the apprentices might be battling to overcome personal and family problems and deal with their own behavioural or emotional issues. Welfare support is constantly on hand from welfare manager, Matthew Thomas, including active psychotherapy sessions and anger management techniques. But it is no surprise that many don’t make it, with an average of one third dropping out each year.  

The trainer

The man responsible for the apprentices is training and development chef, Karl Jones. “It’s a mentoring and nurturing role,” says Karl. “I’m there to see that the trainers are delivering the training promise and that the apprentices are stepping up to that. If they’re having a bad day I have to step in and steady the ship and make sure that service will continue, especially in the early days.” Karl comes from a deprived background and says he went off the rails himself before joining the armed services where he worked in the catering corps for nine years. He knows a thing or two about discipline and he knows what the apprentices are going through. He has seen some very challenging behaviour at Fifteen Cornwall. “You get anger management issues, drug issues, a bit of infighting,” he says. “Maybe one guy’s had a go at another out of work then there’s been a bit of retaliation the following week.” However he is constantly amazed by how much effect the discipline of a professional kitchen has on the apprentices. “When they get their whites on and walk into our kitchen,” he says, “their mentality changes. Some of them have come from gangs and now it’s like they’re in a new gang. If you can get them into that mentality then they’ll want to do their bit. They’ll be standing beside you on a busy service, looking out for each other, watching each other’s backs just as they might do on the streets.” For Karl the culmination of the journey is ‘apprentice week’ at the end of the year when the white hats take over the kitchen for lunch service, doing up to 80 covers on their own at the same price to the customers. “That’s when you know they’re ready to fly the nest,” he says. “When you talk about job satisfaction, it doesn’t come much better than that.”

The head chef

It’s easy to forget this is a fully functioning restaurant with paying customers expecting high-quality food. The man responsible for delivering this is head chef, Andy Appleton. Andy heads up a permanent kitchen brigade of 16-18 trainer chefs or ‘black hats’. As if running a 120-cover restaurant whilst one-to-one training a team of apprentices wasn’t enough, Andy is also committed to serving local, seasonal and sustainable produce meaning, among other things, that the menu changes twice daily depending on what’s available. “Lots of people say they do it,” says Andy, “but we really do. We often get things picked out of the ground that could be on the menu that evening and we’ve done that from day one.” A major part of Andy’s role is building relationships with local suppliers. At the moment duck, lamb and all fish and seafood is local; they’re working on free range chickens, which, apparently, are hard to come by in Cornwall. They even have a local seaweed supplier. Other more adventurous local successes have included roasting the first cup of English coffee with beans grown and harvested at the Eden Project and serving the first pasta made from Cornish-grown durum wheat. For Andy, who used to work at Fifteen London, the challenges of an ever-changing menu and sourcing local produce are matched by that of sourcing the best quality staff. As he says: “One of the biggest challenges is to get a chef good enough to run a busy service and train an apprentice at the same time.”

The ex-apprentice

One of those chefs is Laura Dunne, a current chef trainer who has seen life on both sides of the fence. Laura, 26, was an apprentice two years ago in cohort seven. At the end of her apprenticeship she was asked by Andy and Karl to join the permanent brigade. “I was overwhelmed and a bit surprised,” she says. “To walk out of the kitchen one day in a white hat and back in the next day in a black hat was a bit surreal.” Laura’s Fifteen journey began as an out-of-work 24 year old living in Boscastle. She’d had several jobs but didn’t deal with authority well. “I’d had my fair share of scrapes with the law,” she says. “I’d had dealings with drugs and getting picked up for bad behaviour and disturbing the peace. My main challenge whilst I was in the restaurant was learning to deal with my short temper. I was definitely one who could fly off the handle.” But with techniques given to her by Matt, the welfare manager, Laura was able to overcome her issues and prosper on the course. She even realised her dream of getting her placement at the restaurant she’d fallen in love with, Ruth Roger’s legendary River Café. “For the first time in 26 years of living on this planet I have a career,” says Laura. “Now that I’m cheffing I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Fifteen has given me that. We need more places like Fifteen I think.” Fifteen Cornwall is currently looking for chef trainers. For more information visit www.fifteencornwall.co.uk

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st February 2014

A local haven: Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall